Since President Joe Biden announced his administration’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for low-income and middle-class Americans, conservative media figures have launched a full-throated attack against loan forgiveness.
On Wednesday, the Department of Education released a statement that laid out its plan to relieve debt for both undergraduate and graduate borrowers. Americans annually making $125,000 or less or living in a joint household with an annual income of $250,000 or less are eligible to have $10,000 of federal student loan debt forgiven. Individuals who received the Pell Grant, which provides federal aid to low-income students, are eligible to have an additional $10,000 of student debt canceled. The Education Department also extended its pause on student loan repayment through December 31 and proposed that monthly repayments be capped at 5% of a borrower’s monthly income.
The amount of student debt in the United States has doubled in the last decade, and roughly one in five Americans have student loans. These loans represent drastic economic setbacks for borrowers as one of the greatest contributors to household debt. Over time, the overbearing stress associated with debt can also lead to negative psychological outcomes. On a wider scale, outstanding student loans can reduce consumer spending and diminish business growth. Canceling student debt aims to lessen these consequences and reduce wealth disparities among vulnerable populations most likely to borrow money for school such as nonwhite and first-generation students.
Despite these benefits, right-wing media figures have flooded online spaces and cable news with bad-faith takes and misleading commentary on student debt forgiveness. In reality, the cancellation of student debt marks a significant step toward closing wealth gaps and improving the lives of millions.
Right-wing claim: Loan forgiveness favors the rich
Reality: Most of the student aid relief will benefit those earning less than $75,000. The Biden administration’s plan to cancel student debt is targeted to assist largely low- and middle-income Americans struggling with debt. According to the Department of Education, “Among borrowers who are no longer in school, nearly 90% of relief dollars will go to those earning less than $75,000 a year.”
- On Fox’s Outnumbered, former Trump White House press secretary and current Fox host Kayleigh McEnany said, “Make no mistake: This is a handout to the rich.”
- Fox anchor Sandra Smith suggested that low-income Americans “are going to be on the hook” for the student debt of the upper class.
- During the August 24 edition of The Five, Fox host Jesse Watters mocked loan forgiveness, saying, “I want to congratulate all the rich whites with graduate degrees who live on the coasts and are making six figures.” He also called Biden’s plan “reverse class warfare,” adding, “It's like you rob the poor to pay the rich.”
- On Hannity, guest host Pete Hegseth and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) both framed debt cancellation as a “wealth transfer” that benefits the rich at the expense of middle America.
Right-wing claim: Inflation will be made worse by loan forgiveness
Reality: Any inflation caused by loan forgiveness is expected to be minimal and will be offset when debt payments resume in January. Right-wing media are largely reliant on a blog post for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), which argues that Biden’s decision will worsen inflation. According to the Roosevelt Institute, the CRFB purposefully distorted its deficit analysis, and the results actually indicate that any inflation from debt cancellation is not only minimal, but will be offset by payments restarting in January 2023.
Student debt cancellation is also more likely to allow recipients to either pay other debts or build savings, rather than increase spending. This will not impact inflation, but improve the immediate and future financial security of millions of Americans. This will allow longer-term benefits for the economy, as those individuals will be able to buy a house, have children, or start their own business.
- During a panel on The Faulkner Focus, guest anchor Sandra Smith asked Fox News contributor Richard Fowler, “Doesn't this effort to forgive or cancel this student loan debt, doesn't it sort of undermine Congress' efforts to try to bring down inflation? Won't this government spending just lead to more high prices?”
- Fox News contributor Brian Brenberg claimed that inflation reduction is “gone,” adding, “It wasn't true in the first place and it’s gone three times over now. So if you are one of those senators who made a deal because you wanted to promise the American people we will get some deficit reduction, guess what? You got run over by a truck. It was called student loan relief.”
- Right-wing outlet Just the News published an article titled “Biden student loan plan expected to worsen inflation, benefit higher-income earners,” citing the flawed CRFB analysis.
Right-wing claim: Loan forgiveness is unfair to those without student debt
Reality: Forgiving student loans for those currently saddled with excessive debt is a small step in addressing a dire problem faced by millions — not a slap in the face to those who did not take out loans or already paid them back. As a column for the Los Angeles Times argues:
The truth, of course, is that in a healthy society government policy moves ahead by taking note of existing inequities and striving to address them. Following the implications of the “I paid, why shouldn’t you” camp to their natural conclusion means that we wouldn’t have Social Security, Medicare or the Affordable Care Act today.
Those programs were all designed to relieve Americans of what Franklin Roosevelt called “the hazards and vicissitudes of life.” Is it really sensible to say that we shouldn’t have them because before their enactment seniors were left to starve and suffer illness without assistance, and some families needed to buy health coverage in an individual market that was closed to those with medical conditions or grotesquely overpriced?
- On America’s Newsroom, Fox News contributor Brian Brenberg rhetorically asked the anchors, “Why did you pay off your loans? How foolish are you to be responsible like this? This is the thing that sticks in your stomach, right? There is so much rank injustice here. If you paid off your loans, you are feeling like a fool.”
- On Twitter, right-wing political commentator Matt Walsh claimed, “There is no such thing as student loan forgiveness. There is only student loan transferral, where the debt is transferred from the person who took out the loan to someone else who did not take out the loan.”
- During America Reports, anchor John Roberts characterized loan forgiveness as something critics are calling “fundamentally unfair.” Fox contributor Joey Jones agreed, saying, “There is certainly a fairness element here that doesn’t pan out.” The network also displayed a tweet from Jones that read “I cannot believe I gave two legs for my tuition. What a dope I am,” alluding to Jones’ double leg amputation incurred during his service as a Marine.
- On The Five, co-host Jeanine Pirro claimed, “My heart bleeds for the people who actually went out and paid for their loans, who went without things, whose families said, ‘I'm sorry, we can't afford your loans.’” She then revealed that her family paid for her education. “I didn't have to take out loans because they paid for them. But they worked hard for their money. This is a giveaway and it's disgusting.”
- Fox contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier declared, “It took me about 10 years to pay off $300,000 worth of debt that I incurred through medical school,” before complaining that the plan to cancel student debt is “not fair, and it continues to widen that wage gap.”
Right-wing claim: Biden lacks the legal authority to cancel student debt
Reality: The Biden administration repeatedly outlined its ability to issue student loan forgiveness. In a document released by the Department of Education, officials argued that under the 2003 HEROES Act, the administration has the power “to waive or modify the rules on federal student loans during a presidentially declared national emergency, including the current pandemic.” Additionally, the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice published a document that details the administration’s authority to cancel debt to alleviate financial hardship exacerbated by the pandemic.
- On Fox’s The Five, co-host Jesse Watters deemed the cancellation of student debt “unconstitutional.” He also accused Biden of buying votes, saying, “You can’t raid the Treasury and cut checks to your favorite voters.” Watters asked, “Where did Biden get the power as the president to spend half a trillion dollars?”
- During his Fox prime-time show, Watters claimed, “The president is just breaking the law and bribing voters and Congress doesn't care. … How is Joe raiding the Treasury behind Congress’ back and buying votes before an election not an abuse of power, not an obstruction of Congress?”
- On Twitter, National Review senior political correspondent Jim Geraghty wrote, “The legal authority to do this just appeared out of nowhere magically!”
- Fox host Laura Ingraham said that the loan forgiveness announcement adds “another example” to Biden’s “growing list of illegality.” A chyron during the segment read “Biden’s unconstitutional student loan scheme.”
- Fox News contributor Karl Rove complained, “Where is the authority for the president to do this?”
Right-wing claim: Loan forgiveness will cost individual taxpayers an estimated $2,000 each
Reality: This is simply not how the U.S. tax system works. Conservative media are missing the context that the estimated figure is based on a report from the National Taxpayers Union Foundation that averages the estimated cost to taxpayers of all incomes over a decade. The report also notes that this figure “is not a perfect proxy for cost, however, given the U.S. tax code is progressive and tax burdens are not evenly distributed across households.” For low-income taxpayers, the report estimates the average cost will be much lower than right-wing media are suggesting: The estimated cost for those making $50,000 or less annually is $158.27, and the estimated cost for those earning between $50,000 and $75,000 is $866.87.
- Fox Business correspondent Hillary Vaughn repeated the claim that loan forgiveness will amount to “about $2,000 per taxpayer,” citing the National Taxpayers Union Foundation without context.
- Fox’s Jesse Watters claimed that loan forgiveness amounts to “a war on the working class,” stating, “This loan cancellation will cost the average taxpayer over two grand a year.” In actuality, the report referenced by Watters estimates the cost to taxpayers over the span of 10 years.
- During an appearance on Fox & Friends, Fox Business contributor Dan Roccato also used the $2,000 figure, claiming, “One estimate I saw last night was about two grand or so for the average taxpayer over the life of this thing.”