(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden’s decision on whether to forgive student debt will be personal for many of his aides, who are among the millions of Americans carrying loans for college and graduate school.
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At least 30 senior White House staffers have student loan balances, according to 2021 financial disclosures Bloomberg News obtained from the Office of Government Ethics, including Biden’s new press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, and Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council.
About one in five White House aides required to file a disclosure reported student loans, and more than half are people of color.
Collectively, they owe as much as $4.7 million, the documents show, including one legislative aide who reported owing between $500,000 and $1 million. Generally, only senior or well-paid White House staff have to file financial disclosures, and they don’t have to report debt less than $10,000, meaning the total number of Biden’s aides with loan balances is certainly higher.
Biden has agonized for months over whether to cancel some student debt through executive action, instead of waiting for a gridlocked Congress to pass a law forgiving loans. In the meantime, he’s repeatedly extended a freeze on payments and interest, meaning most Americans with student debt haven’t had to worry about making payments since he’s been in office.
The White House made 2021 financial disclosures for 133 of its employees available late Friday; some current and former staff haven’t yet filed. The documents show that the White House is not unlike any other US workplace with young, college-educated staff: many know first-hand the weight of student loan debt. And as is true across the country, the burden falls disproportionately on communities of color.
In all, the 30 staffers who disclosed student debt hold a total of 50 loans with a combined value of between $2 million and $4.7 million. Just over half are people of color, underscoring the equity element to Biden’s decision.
About 43 million people in the US hold federal student loans, including 15 million who owe $10,000 or less — a threshold Biden is considering for relief. Black college graduates owe more on average than White grads. The NAACP has urged Biden to cancel a far greater amount of loans.
“Anything as low as $10,000 in cancellation would be a slap in the face,” the NAACP’s national director of youth and college, Wisdom Cole, said in a statement this month. “Well-off, predominantly White doctors and lawyers may benefit from $10,000 in cancellation, but that won’t do much to reduce the racial wealth gap.”
Officials report a range of values for their assets and liabilities in the disclosures, leaving precise totals unclear. An employee in the White House congressional liaison office reported the most student debt of any White House aide — between $500,000 and $1 million. Another reported four student loans, cumulatively totaling between $450,000 and $950,000.
It’s unknown how many White House aides might benefit from loan relief, as the disclosures are incomplete and report a range of lenders. Biden also hasn’t decided on many aspects of a forgiveness program, including how much debt to erase per borrower or whether to restrict it to people, or households, under an income threshold.
Former President Barack Obama has said he and his wife were well into adulthood before paying theirs off, and Biden said in 2019 that he wound up with over $280,000 in student debt as he put kids and grandkids through college.
The White House more broadly illustrates the sharp disparities of the American economy. For instance, while the disclosures exclude the values of primary residences, they still show that there are more senior Biden aides who are millionaires than who hold student debt.
Biden is weighing whether he has the legal authority to cancel some debt and whether the move would help close US inequities or exacerbate them. The majority of the debt is owed by households in higher income brackets, according to the Education Data Initiative, meaning that broader cancellation could disproportionately help people who are high earners.
The White House has signaled the president is considering forgiving about $10,000 in debt per borrower, but that the program would be means-tested, perhaps by limiting relief to an income threshold such as $125,000. That would disqualify both Jean-Pierre and Ramamurti, whose 2021 salaries were $155,000 and $130,000, respectively, according to a separate disclosure.
Ramamurti, a former staffer for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a leading progressive, is among those in the White House pushing for broader debt relief, according to people familiar with the internal discussions. Ramamurti and Jean-Pierre did not respond to requests for comment.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement that student loan relief is part of Biden’s overall economic agenda, along with proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
“What drives the economic thinking of the president and his entire team is how we can make the American economy deliver for the middle class and working families,” Bates said. The administration has already provided $18.5 billion in targeted student loan relief to about 750,000 borrowers, he added.
Forgiving $10,000 in debt per borrower would zero out loan balances for 2 million Black debtors and reduce the Black-White gap in the share of individuals with student debt from 9 to 6 percentage points, according to data Warren cited from the University of California Merced and Princeton University.
She wants $50,000 in debt per borrower eliminated, arguing a broader move would have more impact on racial equity and economic security. Warren, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who faces re-election in November, met with Biden on Wednesday to urge him to consider more relief.
“I want to see the maximum amount of debt relief possible,” Warren said in an interview after the meeting.
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