Who Is Worthy of Forgiveness?

Plenty of people aired (and are still airing) their opinions regarding this question in the wake of President Biden’s long-anticipated decision to cancel some federal student loan debt.  But when I skip the “free at last” responses (from those grateful for the federal student loan debt relief) and dig beneath the specifics of the various responses, they are ultimately judging whether or not the recipient of the debt forgiveness is worthy of receiving it.

Quite a few of our fellow Americans believe those who are getting some (or all) of their federal student loan debt forgiveness are unworthy–undeserving.  Those responses sound a lot like “what about those who already repaid their loans?” and “it’s not fair”.  Publicly expressing my happiness for those eligible for debt cancellation on Facebook prompted 1 negative response from my friend list along exactly those lines.  Sadly and predictably, there are many Christians in that chorus, despite what we claim to believe about forgiveness–despite being undeserving–and what the Bible says about forgiveness, debt, and debtors.  We claim to believe in a Bible with multiple verses about cancellation of debts after 7 years and in a jubilee year and this is how some of us choose to respond?  It’s beyond merely sad, but a poor representation of what Christianity is supposed to stand for.

Ironically, the bulk of the opposition comes from people who very likely supported the Republican president and the Republican Congress who passed the law which made Biden’s action possible:

What really highlighted the fact that this federal student loan debt was really about the worth of the people receiving the relief (instead of the fiscal implications) is the response of critics to being called out as hypocrites by a thread from the official Twitter account of the White House:

Half a dozen Republican congressional representatives were found to have received hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars of forgiveness for Paycheck Protection Program loans. Leaving aside the absurdity of congressional representatives applying for and receiving these loans in the first place, this shabby defense really stood out:

This particular defense reminded me of Mitt Romney’s 47% insult about Obama voters when I first saw it. But after some more thought, it occurs that a better analogy for what David French is doing here is being like the older son in the story of the prodigal son. French (and at least some other self-proclaimed conservatives) see themselves as responsible, faithful, yet neglected while those receiving debt forgiveness are undeserving profligates. Here’s Ted Cruz making essentially the same argument in a far less subtle and far more deliberately insulting fashion than David French:

But when I actually looked for information regarding whether or not the Paycheck Protection Program we’re being told to view as disaster relief actually served that purpose, what I found was not very encouraging. Only 25% of the PPP loans actually protected paychecks as intended. Of the 77% of businesses which received funds, nearly half cut staff anyway. Just one investigative report by Fox43 News in Pennsylvania found numerous examples of this. Despite this (and numerous instances of PPP loan fraud, including $268 million recently recovered by the Secret Service) some 94% of PPP loans granted by the federal government have been forgiven in full.

I found this summation of the way that federal student loan forgiveness will actually work in practice particularly compelling:

And that’s before you get to student loan forgiveness programs that predate Biden’s latest action by years.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz makes a persuasive argument that this program will help the economy instead of harming it. He also turns the discussion to a much more useful place than whether or not the recipients of the forgiveness are worthy, but to whether or not it is beneficial to the country at large. One of the online friends I discussed the loan forgiveness plan with had the following thoughts on it:

I’ve noticed that American discourse tends to frame universities as a place that hands out goodies individuals (access to jobs and prestige) vs a place that expands the human capital of the nation. One way to look at Biden’s plan is it releases a lot of highly educated people to do more risk taking things like open businesses and more altruistic things like work for non-profits. It’s not just good for those people but possibly everybody else in society.

This comment gets at the heart of a very particular way in which too many of today’s political leaders fall short when compared to their predecessors. Instead of elected officials (particularly those in the GOP) using their positions to govern in a way that benefits as many people in their particular sphere of responsibility as possible, many choose instead to validate and amplify a false individualism. They deliberately heighten the “us vs them” dynamic that already exists in the country to retain their own power, defining more and more Americans (those eligible for student loan forgiveness in this case) as an unworthy “them”. However imperfect Biden’s debt forgiveness plan is, it at least attempts to do something for the benefit of a broad set of Americans who can use the help.