The timing was perfect when the Biden administration announced its debt reduction plan in late August. According to the Hebrew calendar, the Shemitah year was the last year in which debts were forgiven. It ended on September 25. According to the Bible, debt cancellation is just one of a number of jubilee laws that includes feeding the hungry, freeing the enslaved, and conserving land and protecting it from overwork. As a biblical scholar and pastor, it is often striking to me the moral logic behind these laws. Jubilee was understood by many ancient societies to be more than a compassionate response to inequal economic conditions. It was also a necessary step in order to prevent them from becoming too dependent on inequality. They believed that debt and wider injustice were the causes of two types death: the economic, spiritual, and individual deaths within a society.
The U.S. has seen a rise in its debt, with the addition of $1.6 trillion in student debt, up 100 percentSince 2010. Nearly half of these student debt borrowers owe less than $20,000, so the White House’s announcement that to cancel $10,000 for people earning less than $125,000 (up to $250,000 for a household) and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients is significant. It amounts to the cancellationUp to 20 million loans. But responses to the new measure have been divided — many have celebrated it and Call for moreOthers have raised concerns about whether we can afford it. nationIt was challenged.
In fact, six Republican-led States have been in the process since the announcement. suingThe administration claimed that President Biden exceeded executive power with the debt relief program. The Biden administration responded to this claim by reducing eligibility requirements. This included eliminating borrowers who were unable to repay federal loans that were owned or guaranteed by private banks. NPR describes the impact of such a reversal: “People who took out Perkins loans and Federal Family Education Loans, the mainstay of the federal student loan program until 2010, may no longer be eligible for forgiveness.”
The justification to gut the loan forgiveness program follows the same tired arguments about who “deserves” to have their debt canceled, pitting struggling people against each other. A particularly divisive statement on this came from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who claimed, “It’s patently unfair to saddle hard-working Americans with the loan debt of those who chose to go to college.”
In reality, the debate between the “deserving” and “undeserving” is a sleight of hand that is useful for the rich and powerful. It obscures both the structural nature of debt as well as its role in hyper-charging inequality. Today, nearly 40% of the country lives under poverty or is one. $400 emergencyAway from economic ruin and personal credit that now totals almost $16 trillionThis is not insignificant. It is moral policy to cancel debt and put more money in the pockets of everyday people who will use it on items like food and other household necessities. good economics. We should be skeptical of any narratives that claim scarcity, affordability, or deservingness to stop the cancellation of debt.
Over the last few weeks, politicians have been clamoring about scarcity, complaining that we can’t afford to cancel even a modest amount of debt and spending time and resources undoing the progress the administration made. How is that possible when the Pentagon has received record-breaking funding increases every year for the past decade? $782 billion for 2022 — more than it even requested) and the Federal Reserve bailed out Wall StreetIn the early days, the pandemic cost nearly as much to cancel all student debt.
Moreover, Biden’s student loan plan is small compared to other debt that has been canceled in the last five years with very little opposition, including $659 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loansDuring the pandemic, this money was mainly distributed to wealthy businessmen. $1.7 trillion in taxes Trump tax cuts of 2017 owed billionaires. Scarcity is a myth. It appears to exist only when the needs of the poor can be considered.
Rather, it is not debt cancellation that the nation can’t afford — it is widening inequality that is too costly. The Bible is a good source of information on this. Deuteronomy 15Talks about cancelling loans that are necessary for survival. We only need to look at the median income of those with college degrees versus those who do not have college degrees to see that student loans are about survival. The biblical tradition of debt relief is the centerpiece of God’s call to abolish poverty, and debt cancellation is understood as necessary when poverty proliferates amid plenty and survival becomes a question of wide concern.
Our elected officials should learn from the lessons of the book that they so often refer to. Instead of attacking debt relief, they could use the student debt advances to create a wider range of jubilee programs that lift everyone at the bottom. This could include more debt cancellation but also structural changes such as free, high-quality, and diverse education for all ages, from pre-K to university. There is no reason for loan cancellation to be compared to reforms that make education accessible to all. After all, if we value young people today and the nation’s future, we need both.
Instead of following the divine mandate to jubilee, we see a society overwhelmed with debt and death. Recent statistics show that the U.S. is experiencing a decline in life expectancy and growing debt. two decadesIt actually started to fall in 2015, a phenomenon that was unprecedented in modern history. The country’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemicOnly accelerated this trend and revealed systemic failure in our health care system — by comparison, our peer countries experienced only one-third as much of a decline in life expectancy and then saw an increase as they adopted more effective COVID-19 responses.
According to a 2022 report produced by the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair alongside Rev. Dr. William Barber stated that the death rates of poor and low-income Americans in the United States were twice as high than those of richer countries. At different times during the pandemic, they were even five times higher. This was partly due to the fact that there was not enough health care for the tens of millions of Americans. Congress failed to expand during the worst public health crisis of the century. MedicaidMillions of people live in states that have seen the greatest decline in their health and lack affordable health care. In fact, even though overall health was declining and life expectancy was decreasing, profits for health care companies were increasing.
Connected to the issue of our lowered life expectancy is the growing crisis of what some call “deaths of despair” — from suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism. As I traveled the country, I met small farmer families whose suicide rates are increasing due to the high level of their commercial debt. I met with the spouses and friends a few of the 20 veterans who take their lives every day. This is more than the active duty servicemen killed in the most recent wars. But the framework of “deaths of despair” is often misleading. Even in the cases of suicides or overdoses, a large portion of what is driving these deaths are outright and egregious neglect or injustice.
Aaron Scott, cofounder of Chaplains on the Harbor, an organization that serves the poor of Washington State’s rural coast, has buried dozens homeless and overdosed members. After his death, he had to bury his grandpa. Scott recently explained to me, “When I think of my grandpa’s suicide, as much as he was personally experiencing despair, the reason he died is because he couldn’t access the mental health care my grandma was trying to get him connected to. I’ve seen a number of blatant medical neglect deaths that conservative county coroners refuse to label as medical neglect because of the poverty and IV drug use history of the deceased — so these get recorded as drug-related deaths even though the hospital simply refused care.”
New York City, where i live, and where life expectancy droppedThree years later, in 2020, Hart Island, located in the middle the Long Island Sound, will have a mass grave full of poor people. There are countless other “potter’s fields” (also known as “pauper’s graves”) across the country, and yet few know the true brutality of these graveyards for the poor. Hart Island has seen more than 1,000,000 people buried there since the Civil War. This includes thousands of victims of epidemics such as the flu of 1918 and AIDS. These people are buriedin unidentified graves, with 150 adult and 1,000 infants in a parcel. While some may have been called home at the right time, many more die prematurely because society neglects their most basic needs. They are denied dignity in both life and death.
The United States has become too comfortable with death and poverty, and the result is unfortunately more of both. But if the news of our declining life expectancy is a wake-up call of the most elemental nature, recent action on student debt (if it isn’t completely undone) is a small glimpse into what it could look like for everyone to have the right to live. That is what jubilee has always been about — preserving life and creating a more just and balanced society. We can expect nothing less if we wish to achieve the same today.