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Breaking Down Student Loan Relief: Which Borrowers are Benefitting and Who's Getting Left Behind

Why Some Borrowers are Reaping the Rewards and Others are Being Left Out in the Cold

Top Takeaways

  • 26 of the 40 million eligible borrowers applied or automatically received student loan relief.

  • 98% of applicants came from ZIP codes where the average income is under $75,000, with about 66% of applications from neighborhoods below $40,000.

  • Majority non-white neighborhoods accounted for more applications per capita than did majority-white ZIP codes, indicating that the debt cancellation program could help narrow the racial wealth gap.

  • Overall, about 63% of eligible borrowers applied for the program or were in line to automatically receive relief, with higher sign-up rates in blue states where Democrats heavily promoted the administration’s debt relief application.

Analysis of Biden's Student Debt Relief Applications

A new analysis by POLITICO of federal data has revealed that the majority of applications for President Joe Biden’s student debt relief program came from Democratic states and congressional districts, but not by a significant margin. This is an important takeaway from the study given the highly-charged partisan battle over the program. The analysis also revealed that lower-income areas had a higher rate of applications compared to wealthier neighborhoods, with most applications coming from neighborhoods where the per-capita income is under $35,000. Majority non-white neighborhoods also accounted for more applications per capita than majority-white ZIP codes.


Applications from Democratic and Republican states

Borrowers in blue states were generally more likely to sign up for the program than borrowers in red states, where many Republican officials have criticized the program's legality and cost. Congressional districts won by Democrats averaged about 57,000 applications for debt relief while GOP-won districts averaged 50,000 applications.


Applications from Lower-income Areas

Lower-income areas had a higher rate of applications (nearly 90 percent of the relief provided under the forgiveness plan would go to families with incomes less than $75,000) compared to wealthier neighborhoods, with most applications coming from neighborhoods where the per-capita income is under $35,000. The per-capita income of the ZIP codes where applicants live is one proxy for estimating their income, although most people earn more or less than the average of their neighborhood.


Racial Demographics

The NAACP, Congressional Black Caucus, and other proponents of student debt cancellation have argued that it will help narrow the nation’s persistent racial wealth gap. Overall, about 15 million applications came from majority-white neighborhoods, while about 8.6 million applications were from ZIP codes that are majority non-white, the POLITICO analysis found. But the number of applications per capita was higher among majority non-white ZIP codes than it was in majority white ZIP codes.


Political Implications

The White House launched the application for student debt relief during the 2022 midterm election campaign, and Biden promoted the application in several speeches in the weeks leading up to Election Day. The applications skewed toward congressional districts won by Democrats, according to POLITICO’s estimates. About 52 percent of applications came from Democrat-won districts, while 48 percent were from GOP-won districts.


Conclusion

The study highlights the socio-economic and political factors that influenced the application rates for President Biden’s student debt relief program. It also underscores the importance of addressing the persistent racial wealth gap in the US. However, the program remains stuck in legal limbo, with the Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments in two cases brought by Republican-led states and a conservative group, which argue that Biden’s debt cancellation is illegal.


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