Saturday, February 13, 2016

Bernie Sanders' reform plans are radical, but they are not wacky: What would Dorothy Day say?

I watched the recent debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that took place in Milwaukee last week. Hillary tried to portray Bernie as a naive and wildly unrealistic utopian. Bernie has all these wonderful ideas, she basically said, but how will he pay for them?

Let's look at two of Bernie's radical ideas: free college education at a public institution and expanded Social Security.  As Catholics, what should be our response?

A free college education

As Bernie said during the Milwaukee debate, a college degree (or some form of postsecondary education) is the equivalent of a high school diploma 50 years ago. Almost no one  can attain a middle-class standard of living today without some form of education or training beyond high school.

For more than 100 years, Americans have had access to free high school education; it is recognized as a state responsibility in all 50 states. Today that responsibility needs to expand to include some form of postsecondary education.

Bernie says we should provide all Americans with tuition-free education at a public college or university, and he is right. Moreover, implementing Bernie's plan is cheaper than what we are doing now.

Currently, the United States government spends $165 billion a year in student aid, much of it in federally guaranteed loans. Conservatives may argue that loaning students money is more fiscally responsible than offering free college tuition, but they would be wrong; and here's why.

Although the Department of Education is trying to hide the facts, at least one third of student-loan money is not being paid back. Five-year student-loan default rates are 25 percent overall, and  the default rate is 47 percent among students who borrowed to attend for-profit colleges. In addition, millions of students are being pushed into long-term repayment plans that have monthly loan payments so low that most students will never pay back the principal of their loans. 

In fact, a recent Brookings Institution report recently estimated that most people who sign up for long-term repayment plans and have starting post-graduate salaries of $30,000 will not pay back more than $30,000. In other words, everything these graduates borrow over $30,000 will be forgiven.

According to Catherine Hill, president of Vassar College, offering free college tuition would cost the nation $30 billion a year. But we are already losing $55 billion to $60 billion a year in student-loan defaults and long-term repayment plans. Bernie's plan would actually be cheaper than the status quo.

And let's not forget how much suffering has been caused by the current student-loan program.  More than 20 million people owe student-loan debt they cannot pay back; and most can't discharge that debt in bankruptcy. Many are saddled with student-loan obligations until well into old age, and 155,000 elderly student-loan debtors are seeing their Social Security checks garnished. Surely, Bernie's plan for a free college education at a public institution is better than what we are doing now.

Expanded Social Security benefits

Bernie also wants to expand Social Security benefits, which he plans to pay for by requiring rich people to pay more into the system. This too is a humane and reasonable proposal.

Republican candidates for the presidency want to raise the age for full Social Security eligibility to 70 years of age, but this is a heartless proposal that will bring suffering to America's poor.  Right now, a person must be 66 years old to obtain full Social Security benefits and full eligibility will soon move to 67 years.   I know several people right now who elected to sign up for partial benefits at age 62 for the simple reason that they are out of work and can't wait until age 66 to get full benefits.  Forcing such people to wait until age 70 for full benefits will drive them into poverty.

Moreover, as a recent Brookings Institution report pointed out, life expectancy for men with a high-school diploma or less is significantly shorter than for men who have college degrees. If working-class people are forced to wait until they are age 70 to get full Social Security benefits, many won't get any benefits at all because they will be dead before then.  And as a recent, widely publicized report found, life expectancy for white Americans with no college degree is going down due to rising suicide rates and deaths related to drug and alcohol abuse (as both Bernie and Hillary acknowledged in Milwaukee).

Bernie is right when he says we can expand Social Security benefits if we require the rich to contribute more into the system, which is only fair. People so rich that they don't even need Social Security income can surely pay more into the system to benefit elderly people who are totally dependent on Social Security.

Conclusion: Bernie's ideas are radical, but they are not wacky

Admittedly, Bernie's ideas about college education and Social Security are radical, but they are not wacky.  And they can be paid for without burdening the poor or the middle class.

As Catholics, let's ponder how Dorothy Day would react to Bernie's proposals.  Dorothy and her colleague Peter Maurin often said that Christians should live their faith by doing the corporal works of mercy--by serving the poor as Christ directed in Matthew 25. Surely, Bernie Sanders' plans for Social Security and free college education are in harmony with Christ's admonitions because both proposals would improve the lives of working-class Americans.

Catholics should ponder Dorothy Day's witness as they decide whom to vote for in the coming presidential election. And we should ask ourselves which candidate is most likely to relieve the suffering of the poor.

Image result for "dorothy day"


Robert Shapiro. Life expectancy and the Republican candidates' Social Security proposals. Brookings Institution, January 29, 2016. 

Matthew M. Chingos. Jeb Bush's student loan plan should outlive his campaign. Brookings Institution, February 11, 2016.