To Save Legal Aid, Expand Public Service Loan Forgiveness – Non Profit News

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As a lawyer, I wasn’t prepared to be poor, Black, and ashamed. But just three months into my career as a police misconduct attorney, I received an endless stream of debt collection calls. Agents hounded me to make student loan payments that I could not afford. For over a decade, I remained in public interest while placing my hope in the federal government’s public service loan forgiveness program.

President Joe Biden’s Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (TEPSLF) has been critical for borrowers like me who work at nonprofits and carry a heavy debt burden. Instead of backing down from this transformative program, which expired on October 31, 2022, the administration should make its changes permanent—and expand them.

 

Achieving Financial Security  

During my first three years practicing law, I worked multiple jobs so that I could afford housing, healthcare, food, and student loan payments. Everything changed when I landed a government position. The civil sector provided me with stability and a livable wage—as it does for many Black Americans. And importantly, I was able to pay my student loan bills and stop the calls from collections.

Cancelling student debt is in our greater public interest—and it’s vital for racial equity and justice.

More than a decade later, in July 2022, I received notice that my $103,000 student debt had been canceled through the limited Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF). After years of making regular payments, I finally had a zero balance. At last, I was released from my shame. I felt freer knowing that debt would no longer influence my career choices. The hard truth of the legal aid sector is that many attorneys struggle to pay their bills; we feel that we must pursue high-paying jobs at corporate firms—as opposed to lower paying public service jobs—in order to pay off our loans and still make ends meet.

Indeed, this public service brain drain is a key reason why student debt cancellation matters. It’s not just individual borrowers who benefit. Cancelling student debt is in our greater public interest—and it’s vital for racial equity and justice. Legal aid attorneys like me work to ensure that millions of low-income people of color stay in their homes, are paid fair compensation, expunge faulty criminal records, and access immigration relief. We must be afforded simple, comprehensive pathways to cancel our debt.

 

The PSLF Program: Dreams and Disappointment

As Marian Conway observed recently in NPQ, the federal student loan market is incredibly opaque. Unsurprisingly, confusion quickly dampened the hope generated by PSLF when it was first introduced by President Obama in 2007. Program applicants were denied relief outright or faced heavy tax bills. In 2019, a federal watchdog review found that during the expanded waiver program’s first year, 99 percent of applicants were turned away—mostly due to a bureaucratic technicality. This year, the Biden administration addressed some of the original program’s flaws, insisting, correctly, that reducing student debt is critical to closing the racial wealth gap.

When the PSLF program’s limited waiver ended, thousands of borrowers found themselves out of luck. They included debtors who weren’t aware of the program, those who hadn’t completed the application process, and potential applicants who were thwarted by last-minute changes to the program. The end of PSLF will have an especially devastating impact on public-interest attorneys and their clients.

The Biden Administration’s three-part plan for student loan debt relief offers some reprieve. Under this new plan, announced in August 2022, up to $20,000 of a borrower’s student loan debt can be cancelled.

This plan is under threat, though. Republican special interest groups have attacked the initiative since its launch. On October 21, a federal appeals court put a temporary administrative hold on canceling loans. Then, on November 10, a US District Court judge in Texas vacated the program, deeming it “unlawful”—just weeks before payments are due to resume in January. The Biden Administration must fight back because the student debt relief program will benefit millions of borrowers.

That said, $20,000 is a drop in the bucket for public-interest lawyers—many of whom accrue six figures of debt—and that’s why we must have a pathway to total forgiveness.

 

The Need for Legal Aid  

Upon graduating from law school, lawyers of color have a stark choice: pursue a lucrative corporate career or enter public interest law and live with the economic instability that public service law often entails.

Public interest lawyers are among the lowest paid in the US legal industry but provide critical aid to underserved populations. A recent study indicated that low-income Americans did not receive adequate help for 92 percent of their civil-legal problems. In California, the state where I practice, more than half of the population experiences at least one civil-legal issue per year, and 85 percent received little or no legal assistance. Most under-resourced individuals who struggle to access legal help are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. We need more public interest lawyers, not fewer, to provide people with the legal services and representation they require. Given that student debt heavily influences law students’ career choices, an expanded PSLF program and other forms of debt relief would be of tremendous help in recruiting more graduates to this vital role.

Although the federal government’s loan forgiveness program is race neutral by design, it also advances racial equity. Black Americans are more likely to borrow than students from other racial and ethnic groups pursuing similar degrees, and they are more likely to borrow relatively large amounts. Upon graduating from law school, lawyers of color have a stark choice: pursue a lucrative corporate career or enter public interest law and live with the economic instability that public service law often entails.

It’s easy to discuss student loans as a race-neutral educational resource, but such a narrative is flawed. In 1972, less than a decade after the civil rights movement’s March on Washington, Congress founded Sallie Mae, formerly known as the Student Loan Marketing Association, a for-profit company created to increase the federally insured student loan market. The decision makers involved in its creation—among them President Richard Nixon—were all white men who benefited economically and politically from decades of Black disenfranchisement and the exploitation of Black and Brown labor. This reality underscores the need to reframe current conversations about student loan debt. Such debt upholds race (and gender) inequities because it limits the job mobility of debt holders, including the ability of people from our communities to enter public interest law.

 

Making Legal Aid Affordable

We need our political leaders to end the scams that keep communities of color impoverished and deprive people of comprehensive legal help.

I entered public interest law to seek justice for communities of color—and I can remain in this field because of the relief I obtained from the TEPSLF program. As the executive director of one of the largest free legal-aid providers in California, loan forgiveness allows me to continue to focus on building a culture that financially and professionally takes care of our staff who, along with the clientele they serve, are largely Black and Brown women. Providing these women with legal services is crucial because when women of color thrive, whole communities benefit.

We need our political leaders to end the scams that keep communities of color impoverished and deprive people of comprehensive legal help.

Instead of ending the waiver program—or making only some of its changes permanent, as the US Department of Education announced it would do on October 26—the Biden administration should expand the PSLF program so that more public interest professionals benefit from loan forgiveness. Such action is crucial to ensuring low-income people can access critical legal aid. Communities of color already bear the burden of increased police budgets, reckless COVID-19 policies, an eviction crisis, a stacked Supreme Court, and stagnant immigration reform. The last thing our communities need amid such injustices is to be denied access to legal representation.

 

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