Less than half of Americans support student loan forgiveness: poll

Less than half of Americans support any level of student loan forgiveness, according to a new survey from Yahoo Finance and The Harris Poll. The new findings come as Democratic lawmakers urge President Biden to use executive action to forgive up to $50,000 per person in student debt.

Forty-six percent of the 1,059 people polled Feb. 19-22 said they supported student loan forgiveness, while 54% of respondents opposed it. The new survey found 81% of people with student debt owe more than $10,000.

High-income households and college graduates—which are more likely to have higher amounts of student debt— were more likely to support forgiveness. Fifty percent of households making more than $100,000 per year support forgiveness, compared to 45% of households making less than $50,000. Fifty-three percent of college graduates support forgiveness, versus 35% of people with a high school education or less.

"It's basically an off-the-rack policy to give money to upper-middle class, highly educated people and not others," said Jason Delisle with the American Enterprise Institute. "I don't think it's a good policy because I don't think that's a group of people that we should be providing aid to, necessarily, at the expense of others."

Fifty-eight percent of Black respondents and 54% of Hispanic respondents support some forgiveness, compared to 42% of white respondents. Lawmakers and advocates have stressed that student debt has a disproportionate impact on Black and brown borrowers.

A January survey by The Harris Poll found the overwhelming majority of Americans supported student debt reform, including cancellation. The earlier poll asked for respondents' thoughts on forgiveness of a flat amount of student debt (64% supported), forgiveness of all student debt (55% supported) and forgiveness for certain industries (63% supported). The latest poll simply asked respondents if they supported some form of forgiveness.

The Harris Poll notes the "recent news cycle and social media conversation" around student debt forgiveness may have had an impact on public opinion.

A Morning Consult poll taken in January found 56% of adults supported the $10,000 student loan forgiveness plan Biden proposed in the campaign, while 46% of people in that survey said they preferred the more progressive plan to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower.

Democrats in Congress — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., New York), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and others — have recently stepped up pressure on Biden to reconsider using executive action to cancel $50,000 in debt per borrower. Lawmakers make the case that debt cancellation would not only provide relief to individuals, but speed up the economic recovery by boosting consumer spending and encouraging investment.

“College should be a ladder up,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said during a press conference earlier this month. “For too many people, debt is the anchor that weighs them down and they rarely overcome it. This debt holds people back from buying cars, from going on vacations, from starting families, from getting the job they wanna get."

The new Yahoo Finance-Harris Poll survey found many people are delaying major life events because of their debt. Yahoo Finance has reached out to Warren and Omar's office for comment on the new findings.

Who should cancel the debt?

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said if student debt is going to be canceled, it should be done by Congress — not the White House. Biden has made it clear he won't use executive authority to cancel student debt, but he would sign legislation that cancels $10,000. The administration has said it's reviewing whether it can provide any additional relief through executive action.

Despite the opposition to the idea of debt cancellation, 55% of the survey's respondents said they believe canceling $50,000 would help the economy.

Graphic: David Foster
Graphic: David Foster

Where a lawmaker stands on the issue of student debt forgiveness could potentially impact how Americans vote in future elections. Two-thirds of the survey respondents said a politician's stance on student loan forgiveness is at least somewhat important to them. Cancellation appears more likely to influence younger voters — 72% of respondents under 44 years old (36% of whom carry student loan debt) say a politician's stance is important to them.

Seventy-six percent of Black Americans said student debt forgiveness was important to them when considering who to vote for, compared to 67% of white Americans and 58% of Hispanics. Supporters, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.), argue debt cancellation is a racial justice issue and "must be an essential part of a truly equitable economic recovery.”

Jessica Smith is chief political correspondent for Yahoo Finance, based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.

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