Scrapping loan forgiveness for public servants hurts our democracy

Scrapping loan forgiveness for public servants hurts our democracy
© Getty Images

Broad access to justice is essential to the preservation of any democracy, and yet many Americans struggle to afford adequate legal representation.

Through legal aid organizations across this country, thousands of lawyers, social workers, investigators, paralegals and other public interest professionals make the choice to provide vital services to low-income clients, despite salaries that are often considerably lower than in the private sector. That is why in 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program was established with bipartisan support — to encourage commitment to this invaluable work. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The program allows eligible borrowers who work full-time for the government or a public service employer to have the remainder of their federal Direct Loans forgiven after making 120 monthly payments. With most new lawyers carrying six-figure student loan balances at graduation, not only would employment as a public interest lawyer be less attractive without the load forgiveness program, it would not even be a consideration for many. The program makes it possible for law school graduates to work in public service without sacrificing their financial security and stability.

 

Yet, the Trump administration’s budget proposal targets the program for elimination based on the reasoning that it “unfairly favors some career choices over others.” Of course the program favors certain career choices. That’s the point. A just and balanced society needs a strong and fully-functioning public sector. And that doesn’t just happen on its own. 

According to the Legal Services Corporation, there were roughly 62.5 million Americans eligible for legal services-funded assistance in 2015, yet fewer than 2 million had access to it. These were people who needed help navigating common legal issues like child support hearings, landlord-tenant disputes or efforts to access veterans’ benefits. Cutting the program would exacerbate an already overburdened system and could have a devastating effect on the communities that rely on critical services provided by loan forgiveness recipients. 

Critics of the loan forgiveness program argue that the costs of the program are unsustainable, without clear data to support their claim. A recent congressional proposal justified eliminating the program based on estimates that a quarter of all U.S. workers are employed in public service, suggesting that a quarter of the U.S. workforce would qualify for PSLF relief at taxpayer expense. This suggestion is a gross exaggeration — and here are just a few reasons why:

  • Not all nonprofit employment qualifies for relief under the program. Employment in nonprofit entities organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code explicitly qualifies; employment in other nonprofit entities may not.
  • Only federal Direct Loans can be forgiven through the program. Neither private student loans nor loans through other federal student loan programs qualify.
  • The program requires 10 years of full-time qualifying employment. In other words, forgiveness will only be granted to workers who have made long-term commitments to careers in public service.

The truth is, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is a highly selective program with strict eligibility requirements. Only a subset of government and nonprofit workers will ever qualify for forgiveness. Moreover, because not a single dollar of debt has yet been forgiven through the program, arguments that the program is fiscally unsustainable are based on pure speculation. 

Proposals to rein in federal spending should balance cost savings with the need to invest in critically important aspects of our society. In a democracy, access to financial resources should not be a prerequisite of access to justice — 0r health care, or high-quality education.

Likewise, financial resources should not determine who is able to devote their lives to public service. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is an attempt to help disentangle the undemocratic bonds between wealth and rights and opportunities. As a society, we should support it. Because a commitment to preserving this program is a commitment to the strength of our communities, our states and our nation.

Christopher P. Chapman is president and chief executive officer of the AccessLex Institute, conducting and commissioning research to illuminate the latest data and evidence on the most critical issues facing legal education. The organization also advocated for policymakers and influencers to take actions that make legal education work better for both students and society at large.