April 6, 2021
Many people are surprised to learn that Social Security checks can be garnished to pay for student loan debt. In a recent development on that front, reports show that many people on Social Security disability insurance have not received the student debt relief they’re entitled to. According to a recent MarketWatch article:
The fact that 41,000 disabled borrowers had their loans turned back on during the pandemic, is “shocking,” and an indication of how challenging it is for these borrowers to access the relief they’re entitled to, said Persis Yu, the director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center.
“This isn’t an announcement, it’s a confession,” she said.
Yu added that the implication that the Department will turn the income-monitoring requirement back on after the pandemic is “unacceptable.” A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that 98% of disabled borrowers who had their debts reinstated didn’t have incomes that were too high to qualify, instead it was because the borrowers didn’t submit the documentation.
“They’re making people work way too hard for their relief and this action today is woefully insufficient to solve any of those problems,” she said.
Disabled people aren’t the only ones struggling with Social Security and student debt. Nearly 114,000 seniors had their Social Security checks seized for student debt in 2015 alone. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office, 2.3 million people age 62 or older had federal student debt in 2020; up by 35 percent just since 2017. Federal Student Aid can take up to 15 percent of an individual’s Social Security benefit while leaving them as little as $750 per month to live on.
This is a snapshot of our broken social contract. Until recent decades, higher education was available in many states at little or no tuition cost. It was understood that education helps the entire society, as well as the individual, and that it was a public good we provided as a nation.
Social Security was another important thread in the fabric of national community. As a nation, the United States committed itself to making sure that nobody would plunge into poverty because they became disabled or reached retirement age. That commitment, too, was a critical part of our social contract. Social Security is designed to be funded through the payroll tax so that, as FDR reportedly said, “no damn politician” could take away a benefit funded directly by working people.
We reversed ourselves on debt-free higher education, throwing that obligation onto the backs of individual students. As that proved increasingly unworkable, we broke a second promise: to disabled and senior Americans. The result is tragic for millions of people on Social Security. But it’s a tragedy for the rest of us, too. It’s the portrait of a society whose bonds are disintegrating. It’s up to us to restore those bonds – by protecting Social Security benefits, providing tuition-free higher education, and canceling student debt.
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