Moneybox

Student Debt Forgiveness Is Really, Really Popular Among Democrats

A demonstrator protests over student debt.
Nothing like a good protest pun.
Randall Mikkelsen/Reuters

I have a hunch that, come 2020, at least one major Democratic candidate for president is going to campaign on outright canceling a boatload of student debt.

I say this for two reasons, and despite the fact that I have some pretty mixed feelings about the merits of mass debt forgiveness as a policy proposal.

First, the issue is viscerally important to a lot of young, progressive voters who are drawn to politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for the simple reason that many of them are highly educated, underpaid, and struggling under a big pile of loans as a result. The burden of borrowing for school is one of the defining experiences that have shaped Millennials’ views of the economy, which is why student debt relief has been a constant demand from the left at least dating back to Occupy Wall Street. The desire to see those loans wiped isn’t going away.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, some recent polling suggests that the idea is broadly popular among Democrats. Back in October, the think tank Data for Progress and the debt relief advocacy group Freedom to Prosper released a report arguing at length that loan cancellation would be a political winner. At the time, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, but after the issue popped back onto my radar last week, I asked them for some of the cross-tabs from the polling they commissioned, which asked 1,500 adults the following question:

“Would you support or oppose reversing the tax cuts recently passed by Congressional Republicans and signed by President Trump, and using any proceeds to cancel outstanding student debt?” 

Now, this isn’t a perfect query to test support student debt forgiveness, since it contrasts the idea with the much loathed Trump tax cuts. Some people might have answered yes to the question not because they thought relieving loans was a great idea per se, but because it seemed like a better use of the government’s money than slashing tax rates on corporations. But the results should at least give us a suggestion of where public opinion stands. And frankly, besides the work that Data for Progress commissions, there isn’t all that much great polling out there for moonshot left-wing policy ideas other than Medicare for All. (It’s certainly better than this bizarrely framed Rasmussen poll on student debt).

Anyway, the results are pretty stark. Among all survey takers, undoing the Trump tax cuts and using the money for student debt forgiveness had 41 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed. Among Democrats, however, the result wasn’t even close: The net-approval was 52 percent , with about 66 percent in favor and just 13 percent opposed.

A chart that shows among all survey takers, undoing the Trump tax cuts and using the money for student debt forgiveness had 41 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed. Among Democrats, however, the result wasn’t even close: The net-approval was 52 percent , with 66 percent in favor and just 13 percent opposed.
Jordan Weissmann/Slate

What’s especially notable in these results is that, while a lot of Democrats strongly support the idea of forgiving student debt, relatively few strongly oppose it. One of the big political questions hanging over the concept of mass loan cancellation is whether it would anger and alienate people who have already paid off most or all of their debts, or those who did not go to college. When it comes to the Democratic primary electorate, there doesn’t seem to be much danger of turning off large numbers of voters with the idea. The concept may be more polarizing in a general election, of course (among independents, 27.2 percent strongly support it, while 28.5 percent strongly oppose it). But—at least until more polling comes out suggesting otherwise—it seems like a surprisingly low-risk way to win over voters while competing for the nomination.