Sunday, August 6, 2017

The price of forgiveness

There are still good people in government — I have to believe that because the alternative would be to give up in disgust, joining the perpetual cynics and those who simply do not care anymore.

I have reported on my share of egotists, self-servers, blaggards and downright incompetents; of democratically elected presidents who behave like mafia chiefs; of leaders who pepper their speeches with the invective of the gutter, but perhaps worst of all, the ideologues prepared to go to any lengths to twist society into their view of the world, no matter the damage they do or the people they hurt.

A case in point is the current controversy surrounding the United States Student Loan Forgiveness Program. Set up towards the end of the George W. Bush Administration and continued through the Obama years, it offered university graduates the opportunity to work in low-paying public service positions — including policing, teaching, legal aid and social work — or for not-for-profit organisations.

If they completed 10 years of that service, they would be relieved of the balance of their loan taken out in order to afford a tertiary education.

By European standards the program was not generous — the inductees would still have to make repayments while they were working in their job, but at a rate that reflected their low pay, and at the end of the program the outstanding amount of the loan would be ‘forgiven’.

At least that was what the roughly half-million graduates who had enrolled in the program since it was established in 2007 believed. What the paperwork from the Department of Education they signed said, and what they continued to believe as they toiled away in jobs far below the levels that their degrees should have given them.

But now, just as the initial inductees are completing their 10 years of service, the Department appears ready to renege on the deal, claiming that the contractor originally hired to administer the program “could not be relied on” to give assurances that loans would be forgiven.

The Department said the contractor had made “occasional errors”, in its relationship with those in the program, but claimed that these errors had now been corrected and that everyone should now know where they stood.

According the Department, this means that inductees have to complete the program — and provide confirmation of their monthly repayments during the 10 years — before the Department would consider their eligibility for loan forgiveness.  

This last minute change of course has sent a shudder of apprehension through the graduates who are working their way through the program. As the President of the American Bar Association, Linda Klein points out, they took jobs and put their ambitions on hold based on the information they accepted in good faith from the Department. Now it seems they could be paying a steep price for the Department’s mistakes.

But is this a simple mistake, or really an excuse to ditch a program that is anathema to the current Administration in Washington? The Department is headed by Betsy DeVos, a super-rich businesswomen who has made no secret of the fact she has used her wealth to buy influence within the ruling Republican Party to “foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues…we expect a return on our investment”.

Ms DeVos, whose nomination for the position was fiercely contested by Democrats in Congress, is known to be determined to remake American education in her preferred image — and has an intense dislike for the loan forgiveness program. While a direct assault on it would be met by a flood of lawsuits, the current development may be the start of a search for ways of killing it off by other means.

The Student Loan Forgiveness program was not only a way of helping students reduce their debts. It encouraged talented young people into areas where they might never have considered, helping people with their social and medical problems, beefing up law enforcement, teaching in rural and remote areas.

If they eventually move on, their lives and attitudes would still be coloured by the experience — and if even a tiny fraction considered the work worthwhile enough to devote the rest of their career to it, then society would be the beneficiary.

But the scheme does not accord with the hard line thinking of Ms DeVos and many other conservative Republicans. The bottom line is too fuzzy with liberal values and the sums do not add up.   

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