A shameful neglect — a Jewish look at student debt

As Jews living in the diaspora, we are told to care not only for our own, but for the greater population among whom we live. “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper,” the prophet Jeremiah quotes God as saying (see Jeremiah 29:7).

To seek “the welfare of the city” includes involvement in and concern for all manner of issues, especially those regarding the poor and the disadvantaged, as the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Gittin makes clear (see especially on 61a).

One such area of concern is education. The founder of neo-Orthodoxy, the 19th-century authority Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, asserted as much in a volume he titled “Nineteen Letters,” which deals with issues confronting modern Jews. God, he wrote in Letter No. 6, seeks the education of humanity in order “to train humankind to the knowledge of themselves and of Him.”

In Letter No. 10, he expands on this, calling it Israel’s “mission.” He rhetorically asks of his fictional correspondent what he expects from studying Torah. The answer, he says, is likely to be for him to find ways to “practice justice and love with all and to all.” Hirsch then goes on to invoke “the mission” of Israel, telling his correspondent that the goal of his education — and by extension the goal of all modern Jews — is to “educate himself and others” in order “to bring this idea [of justice and love] to life.”

There are all manner of education issues that need addressing. Some have been addressed here in the past and likely will be addressed in the future, especially a community’s responsibility to see to the availability and affordability of a quality Jewish education for all its children.

As we begin to navigate our way through 2020, however, one issue looms large in the general population: student loans. It is estimated that there is between $1.3 trillion and $1.6 trillion in outstanding student debt in the country today.

The overall issue gets much attention, of course, because various Democratic presidential hopefuls have made it so. Senator Bernie Sanders promises to cancel all student debt, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Michael Bloomberg want to eliminate debt based on income, and  former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Governor Deval Patrick, Andrew Yang, and Tom Steyer want to find other ways to provide relief.

Too often ignored, however, are two categories of debt-holders for whom relief is available now, but who are unable to get it because, to put it bluntly, politics stands in the way.

Ever since the passage of the Great Society-era Higher Education Act in 1965, student loan borrowers who have “become totally and permanently disabled” (there are approximately 550,000 such people at the moment) are supposed to have their loans canceled. The act requires the U.S. Department of Education to do so. It is the law, and it is clear and unambiguous.

It is the law, but it is not the reality, as an investigation by National Public Radio recently found. Most of those 550,000 potentially eligible student loan borrowers still are being dunned. The Department of Educaton told Congress last year that so far it had canceled the debt of 40 percent of them, but the NPR investigation found that this is true for only 28 percent of eligible borrowers. The DoE tried to explain away the disparity in the numbers, but basically acknowledged NPR’s figure.

There are a variety of reasons given for why this situation continues. Among them are the outdated and ineffective methods of communication the DoE uses to inform potentially eligible borrowers that they may be entitled to have their loans forgiven. At the top of the list, however, are bureaucratic roadblocks, especially a requirement that applicants first must complete a complicated application process, and then must endure a three-year monitoring period, during which they must submit annual income statements to prove they have no income. Failure to submit one statement cancels the process.

“A lot of folks have disabilities that, frankly, prevent them from going through the process,” Persis Yu of the National Consumer Law Center told NPR. This includes people with dementia and people who cannot keep up with the paperwork because they are confined to hospital beds.

According to Allison Bawden of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, NPR reported, a GAO review she led in 2016 found that “borrowers with disabilities often failed out of the program and had their loans reinstated because of paperwork issues.”

There is a reason for the paperwork, of course; it is meant to weed out fraudulent claims. While this seems quite responsible on the DoE’s part, there is a catch: There is no one assigned to review these documents. As NPR reported, “tens of thousands of borrowers with disabilities are being denied loan discharges for not submitting a form that the department does not verify for accuracy.”

That the administration is aware of the problem is clear from an action that President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos took in August. It was supposed to automatically erase approximately 24,000 student loans owed by disabled Armed Forces veterans without their even having to ask for it, much less having to wait three years to get it. Only about 3,300 disabled veterans had their loans cancelled by October, however, when the DoE suddenly suspended the program for bureaucratic reasons. Supposedly it was restarted in November, although there is no information yet as to how many veterans actually have had their loans canceled.

It does not take much effort to understand why Trump waited until the eve of his re-election campaign to order the loan cancellation for permanently disabled veterans, while continuing to ignore the plight of the other permanently disabled borrowers: He wants all veterans in his corner in November. Vice President Mike Pence made that clear in his Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery:

“Since the first day of our administration,” he told the assembled veterans who had come to honor those who died in the service of our country, “President Trump has taken decisive action to ensure that America keeps the solemn promises that we’ve made to each and every one of you and to all of our nation’s heroes.” After listing some of those actions, Pence added, “And three months ago, President Trump directed the Department of Education to eliminate every last penny of student debt owed by a permanently disabled veteran. With the stroke of a pen, the president wiped out $750 million owed by more than 25,000 heroes.”

How true that is still remains to be seen.

Another group that is entitled to loan forgiveness is comprised of student borrowers who took out their loans in order to attend colleges that ended up defrauding them. The DoE rule making them eligible for forgiveness is called “borrower defense” and the DoE has an active “Borrower Defense Unit” to investigate and act on these cases. The BDU takes its job seriously and does recommend debt cancellation when warranted.

In a second investigation, however, NPR found that the BDU’s recommendations are being ignored — this time clearly for political reasons.

One case reviewed by the BDU involved the now defunct Corinthian Colleges, Inc., which operated campuses here and in Canada. The BDU said that Corinthian “consistently” made “false and misleading” representations to students, especially about “guaranteed employment after graduation…. Accordingly, the Borrower Defense Unit recommends full relief” for these borrowers.

The second case involved the now-defunct ITT Technical Institute, which had campuses in 38 states. “Hundreds of unprompted student statements confirm that … their education was sub-standard and that their degree or affiliation with the school was an impediment rather than an asset as they sought employment…,” the BDU concluded. “Accordingly, it is appropriate for the Department to award eligible borrowers full relief.”

Betsy DeVos, however, rejected both recommendations. The students, after all, did get an education, even if the BDU found that education to be worthless. While the DoE wants to be fair to these students, she said, it also wants to ensure “that taxpayers who did not go to college or who faithfully paid off their student loans do not shoulder student loan costs for those who didn’t suffer harm.”

Translation: We do not want to upset conservative voters, especially of the Tea Party variety.

When we are approached in the coming months by people seeking federal office, these are among the issues we should insist on being addressed. As Samson Raphael Hirsch noted, it is part of our “mission.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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