Sunday, December 6, 2015

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, let us as Catholics urge the government to forgive student-loan debt

According to Old Testament scripture, a jubilee year occurs every fifty years; and in that year, slaves are freed and debts are forgiven. Leviticus 25:8-13. Pope Francis has proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church that begins on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. Would not this be a good time for the  U.S. government to forgive  $1.3 trillion in student-loan debt?

Perhaps not all of it. Of the 41 million people who have outstanding student loans, a great many received good value for their college education and can pay back what they borrowed. But 10 million people have either defaulted on their student loans or are delinquent in their payments. Millions more have gotten economic hardship deferments and aren't paying down their loans.

And for some people, their student loan debt is completely out of control. Liz Kelly, for example, featured in a recent New York Times article, is a 48-year old school teacher who owes $410,000 in student-loan debt--most of it accumulated interest. Will she ever pay it back? Not likely.

A 2014 law review article reported that 241,000 people with student-loan debt filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but less than 300 of them even tried to discharge their student loans. Either they figured it would be hopeless to try wipe out their student-loan debt in the bankruptcy courts or they didn't have the money to hire a lawyer to assist them.

And yet, as Paul Campos explained on his blog site and in a recent book,  we have thousands of unemployed or underemployed attorneys, many of whom have crushing student-loan debt themselves. Why doesn't the government, as an act of mercy, encourage these idle lawyers to help people discharge their student loans in bankruptcy?

Mercy, Pope Francis reminds us, demands justice. "True mercy, the mercy God gives to us and teaches us, demands justice, it demands that the poor find a way to be poor no longer," Pope Francis explained. Mercy demands that institutions insure that "no one ever again stand in need of a soup-kitchen, of makeshift lodgings, of a service of legal assistance in order to have his legitimate right recognized to live and to work, to be fully a person."

Our country now has 23 million people who are unable to pay off their student-loan debt.  Indeed, about 150,000 elderly people are having their Social Security checks garnished by the federal government to offset unpaid student loans. For these people there is no Jubilee Year of Mercy--no forgiveness, and little relief even in the bankruptcy courts.

We are now a secular people--a people who pride themselves on having driven religion out of the schools and the public square. But surely we are not a heartless people. Surely our hearts are susceptible to warming by the words of a great man like Pope Francis.

So let us do mercy in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. And if our government is incapable of mercy, let us look for ways we as individuals can render mercy and to work for a system of higher education that does not drive millions of students into the poor house.

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