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Why student loan forgiveness is early childhood policy

Why student loan forgiveness is early childhood policy
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Opponents of student loan forgiveness are falling back on a familiar framing strategy: zero-sum arguments that pit the interests of one generation against those of another. One argument that we are hearing is that money that would go toward forgiving students loans would be better spent on programs, such as early learning services, that support young children. Student loan forgiveness policies are being cast as benefitting undeserving adults at the expense of the worthiest of all recipients of public resources: young children. This framing undercuts support for the policy and puts it at risk.

But science tells us another story, showing that policies such as student loan forgiveness actually are early childhood policies, and good ones at that. 

When it comes to early childhood development, it’s not a question of choosing to support adults or children. Advocates can frame policies that have the potential to support families as one of the most effective things we can do to support young kids and their development.

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Earned income tax credits and child care subsidies are adult-focused policies that are clearly connected to children. While less clear in their linkage, so are policies such as unemployment benefits and direct stimulus payments. As much as critics shout otherwise, these policies positively impact young children because they reduce financial stress on families.

In 2019, people ages 25 to 34 had more than $500 billion in student debt, and people ages 35 to 49 carried over $600 billion. Because many adults are delaying marriage and starting a family because of heavy student loans, many of these individuals are parents of young children. The heavy burden imposed by student debt impacts their ability to provide materially and emotionally for their children. We can think about student loan forgiveness as another way to invest in families at a time when such investments are most critical to children’s — and society’s — long-term outcomes. 

Research shows that significant financial and material hardship — such as that imposed by heavy student debt — can create stress that impacts parenting and affects children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. This issue is especially timely in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had negative economic effects on many American families.

The University of Oregon’s RAPID (Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development) survey of households with children ages 5 and under found that, since the CARES Act ended in July, 40 percent of all families with young children are experiencing difficulty paying for at least one basic need (e.g., food, rent, utilities). The numbers are even more concerning for some subgroups — for example, 60 percent of all Black and Latinx households with young children are reporting some form of material hardship. By potentially relieving financial burdens, student loan forgiveness can help better support families during these challenging times. Student loan forgiveness doesn’t just influence the adult bearing the load of debt, but also impacts parenting in a way that positively affects children’s development. 

The positive impacts of student loan forgiveness are even more far-reaching. Early childhood experiences shape children’s developing brain architecture and their ability to contribute in meaningful ways to society. Any effort to support families is a step towards supporting our future students, leaders, workforce and community members.

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Early childhood advocates should resist either/or and zero-sum policy framing that pits adults against kids. Advocates and researchers know that the well-being of parents and their children is fundamentally interconnected. Policymakers can decide to forgive student loans, in turn, supporting early childhood development. Effective child policy is as simple as this: When we support families, we support child development. We need to clearly frame policies designed to reduce financial distress — no matter the direct beneficiaries — as sound early childhood policies.

Moira O’Neil, Ph.D., is vice president of research interpretation at the FrameWorks Institute with a background in sociology in advancing social movements with a focus on immigration, racism and criminal justice. 

Nat Kendall-Taylor, Ph.D. is CEO at the FrameWorks Institute and an expert in psychological anthropology and serves as a fellow or counsel to organizations such as Amnesty International, National Academy of Sciences and Harvard University, among others.