Borrowers are clearly eager for the economic relief though. Since Congress passed the CARES Act in March, millions of borrowers have benefited from a pause on monthly loan payments and 0% interest rates. While the legislation has been in effect, less than 11% of people with outstanding loans have continued to make payments. The act is now set to expire on January 31, a mere 11 days after Biden’s inauguration. With control of Congress still up in the air and Republicans pushing back against an expansion of student debt relief, the choice to act decisively on student debt cancellation is largely in Biden’s hands.
Teen Vogue spoke with several young people via email about the psychological and physical relief of temporarily not having to make monthly payments. “Right before the letter came in, the late payments had already been piling up,” explains Maribel, a 30-year-old STEM Instructional Coach and mother of two from Seattle. “It was extremely stressful thinking about how much we have been falling behind because we were prioritizing food, shelter, and the well-being of our family.”
“Student loan debt is suffocating,” Maribel she continued. “And it’s really hard to give even a few hundred dollars when you have zero dollars in your savings account in the event of an emergency.”
According to the Federal Reserve, more than one in seven borrowers were in delinquency before COVID-19 and nearly two-thirds of borrowers could barely make monthly payments large enough to cover their interest rates, much less their principal. That meant millions of people were making monthly payments on an outstanding balance that would continue to grow anyway.
The pandemic has made the economic burden on individuals and families more acute, with people struggling to balance monthly student loan payments, rent, bills, and medical debt alongside sudden job loss and reduced hours. As COVID-19’s financial impact became more evident, an adjacent conversation has also developed around the pandemic’s layered emotional and psychological stress — not just in light of the horrific death toll, but also around the reality that the U.S. has so few safety nets in place for its citizens in the event of a crisis of this scale. And perhaps even worse, we’ve seen firsthand how unwilling our political representatives are to finally create them, even while the country is up to its neck in a life-threatening emergency.
Andrew, a 25-year-old who works in the museum industry, said his student loans sometimes make him question following his passion over entering a more lucrative field. “Now that [student loans are] something I have to deal with and think about almost daily, I question myself a lot. Did I need to get a master’s [degree]?… It irritates me and makes me hate the whole capitalist system [because it makes me] question whether I should do something that I feel is important and I value, or do something to make more money and avoid financial stress.”
In a survey conducted by the company Student Loan Planner earlier this year, 79% of respondents said they experienced anxiety related to their student loans and 45% said they experienced depression. The stress of economic instability and the fear of its return continues to simmer, even in moments of reprieve. Maybe the persistent phone calls and letters from debt collectors have stopped and the Sallie Mae memes have grown fewer and further between, but a student loan balance that felt insurmountable before the CARES Act will still feel insurmountable after the relief period’s end.