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President Obama Gives Relief To Social Security Recipients Drowning in Student Debt

posted on 2016-04-24

*The following is an opinion column by RMuse*

Most Americans are aware that going to college is a pricey proposition, but to get a decent-paying job in the 21st Century taking on some debt for an education is an accepted investment for a financially secure future. However, it is an atrocity that the student debt many Americans took on early in their lives is following them through their retirement and straight to the grave.

It is unbelievable, but many of these “student debtors” are now senior citizens whose Social Security benefits are being garnished to continue to pay the student loans they took out a lifetime ago. This practice is an atrocity for seniors and the disabled who barely subsist on their meager Social Security benefits because they are being plagued by a practice that at one time was forbidden by law; a law Republicans changed.

When the original Social Security Act was enacted 80 years ago, it contained a simple provision that prohibited garnishing Social Security benefits for debts owed to the federal government. Republicans hate any ‘provision’ that protects Americans’ Social Security benefits as much as they despise Social Security, so in 1996 they enacted a law abolishing that protection like today’s Republicans want to abolish Social Security.

The number of seniors whose Social Security benefits are being garnished has grown proportionally with the number of students being forced into higher and higher student loan debt to earn an education and provide a financially secure future for themselves and their families. All that came to an abrupt end last week when President Obama acted to put an end to what Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) labeled “an appalling practice.”

The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Grijalva said,

It is appalling that Social Security support for seniors and those with disabilities is being skimmed to feed into an out-of-control student debt machine. These funds are intended to ensure dignity in retirement and to lift individuals out of the depths of poverty.”

Grijalva’s fellow co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) said,

The high costs of tuition and student loans leave people of all ages with huge amounts of student debt. It’s wrong to garnish the small Social Security checks of older and disabled people in order to pay for their student loans. People should not lose their hard earned benefits in order to pay their student loans. The Administration has the power to stop this practice.”

It took a few months to be worked out, but the Obama Administration did use its power to put a stop to the appalling practice likely infuriating Republicans who supported the practice they enacted in 1996. It was a small victory in the fight to preserve Social Security and address student debt relief, but it was a victory all the same. The Department of Education announced:

A new process to proactively identify and assist federal student loan borrowers with disabilities who may be eligible for loan discharge. This effort was called for by President Obama in his Student Aid Bill of Rights, which details measures to make paying for higher education an easier and fairer experience for millions of Americans.”

The history of how this abominable practice developed is a typically Republican assault on Americans’ Social Security. In the 1950s and 1960s young people could get a college education without being buried in debt because community and state college funding was paid for by the government. The thinking that worked marvelously was a simple one; the tax revenue return on the government’s investment in education was well worth it; literally well worth it.

However, that was unacceptable to Republicans who oppose any spending on education, especially higher education. Therefore, in the late sixties conservative politicians like Republican demigod and California governor Ronald Reagan slashed education spending to the bone and started imposing tuition at California’s state universities and community colleges. Like a lot of Reagan’s atrocities as California governor, the policy caught on around the nation and higher education steadily became a money-maker for financial institutions.

The situation only grew worse as Republicans enacted deeper spending cuts to public higher education while increasing tuition to place more of the cost of education onto students to send them to predatory lending institutions. At least when the students reached retirement age or became disabled, the government and financial institutions were prohibited from garnishing Social Security benefits. All that changed in 1996 when Republicans led by Newt Gingrich changed the law. Subsequently, for the past twenty years Social Security recipients with student loan debt have had their benefits garnished until they died even when they were barely making it.

The congressional Democrats appealing to the Obama Administration to change the law were part of a concerted effort by leaders representing the Student Debt Crisis, Social Security Works, Project Springboard, CREDO, and the Campaign for America’s Future. The groups who banded together delivered 375,000 petition signatures and a Congressional letter to the Education Department last October urging an end to Social Security benefit garnishments for student debt. As Representative Ellison remarked, “the Administration has the power to stop this practice” and since Congressional Republicans are as impotent as they are unwilling to do anything for the people, President Obama stepped in and gave Social Security recipients the relief they deserve as the law was originally enacted.

The ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH) said that,

Garnishing Social Security benefits for student loan debt is a significant blow to our seniors, especially when a growing percentage of older Americans rely on the program as their sole source of income, an essential economic lifeline. Our federal government should not punish Americans for striving for a better opportunity, or supporting children and other family members working hard to pursue their dreams.”

There is still a monumental amount of work to do to both give relief to Americans drowning in student loan debt and protect Social Security beneficiaries, but in this political environment any victory, no matter how small, is significant and a reason to celebrate. It is noteworthy that once again it was President Obama who did what he was able to do as leader of the Executive branch to offer relief to Social Security recipients, and one can only imagine the level of progress this nation could achieve if there was willingness among Republicans in Congress to actually work for the people’s general welfare.