Rep. Tom Garrett has a crazy new proposal intended to ease the student debt crisis, which appeared on Fox News shortly before the new year. His idea would allow young people to opt to have their student loans erased in exchange for foregoing Social Security payments until later on in life. In other words, he wants young people to sacrifice their future security for temporary relief from a financial burden they shouldn’t be subjected to in the first place. Personal finance experts and progressive activists agree that this plan could do more harm than good. Instead of helping young people jumpstart their future, it’s likely to jeopardize their stability later in life.
The point of Social Security is to provide older and disabled Americans with some financial stability so that they don’t have to work until the day they die. Social Security has kept millions of Americans out of poverty, and is estimated to have reduced the poverty rate among older people from 40 percent to under 10 percent. Economic forces can be wildly unpredictable, and nearly every reputable financial advisor recommends investing in the future for that reason. Even so, plenty of Americans make it to retirement without enough savings.
According to Social Security Works, “Sixty-one million depend on Social Security—more than 1 out of every 6 Americans; just over 3 in 5 seniors depend on Social Security for most of their income, and one-third of seniors rely on it for at virtually all (90% or more) of their income.” Revoking future security on behalf of current debt is like putting a band-aid on a bleeding wound.
As Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, told AlterNet, "Congressman Garrett’s bill will hurt the young people who he claims he wants to help. It is ill-conceived and unworkable. And it shows an ignorance both of our Social Security system and of the economic needs of those now reaching adulthood.”
In fact, Garrett is going about the problem totally backwards.
"The nation is facing a looming retirement income crisis, which will hit younger Americans the hardest,” Altman continued. “We should provide our young people with tuition-free college, just as we do tuition-free secondary school. We should also expand Social Security, so that they are better protected when wages are lost as the result of retirement, or in the event of disability or death. We can afford both.”
Garrett parades his idea under the conservative banner of promoting “choice,” but what would it really look like if young people with student debt chose to use their Social Security money to pay off loans today? It would undoubtedly widen the gap between rich and poor. Decades from now, we’d see well-off people who never had to deal with loans receiving their Social Security dues on time. We’d also see poorer Americans who needed help paying for school receive their Social Security benefits later, when it’s likely that they’ll be the ones needing it the soonest.
Financial experts don’t agree that the plan makes economic sense on the individual level. Erin Lowry, author of "Broke Millennial," said, “The idea that we'd encourage young people to make the decision to handicap their retirement selves instead of trying to find solutions to provide more affordable education options in our country is distressing. While I understand the thought process behind the Student Security Act, it's shifting the burden from the young person to his or her future self. We currently advocate that parents don't raid their retirement savings to pay for a child's college education. After all, there are scholarships, grants and loans available to college students, but not to hopeful retirees.”
Progressive activists are calling Garrett’s plan fraudulent and irresponsible. Melissa Byrne, a former Bernie Sanders staffer and candidate for DNC Vice-Chair who has organized around both student debt and Social Security, said, “Rep. Garrett's plan is simply a fancy fraud on young people trying to start their lives. They are being asked to trade the ability to choose when to retire in exchange for getting a break on federal student loans. Social Security is a promise and no one should be able to limit that promise. If Mr. Garrett is serious about solving the problems with student loans, he can work to create a nationwide loan eradication program that doesn't steal from folks' future wages.”
If Garrett really wanted to help American students enter the job market on a level playing field, free of the crushing burden of student loans, he’d support legislation to make college free or subsidized by the government. For-profit colleges and universities are allowing students to enter adult life already at a financial disadvantage. Young people shouldn’t have to sacrifice their future health and well-being to make up for higher ed’s greed. Tom Garrett’s plan is just further proof that Republicans want to dismantle the pillars of the American welfare system, which has kept millions out of poverty for decades.