Loan forgiveness for borrowers with disabilities had been in the works for 10 years – ProPublica
ProPublica is a non-profit newsroom that investigates abuse of power. This column was originally published in Not Shutting Up, a newsletter on issues of journalism and democracy. Register here.
Over a decade ago, a young journalist named Sasha Chavkin wrote for ProPublica about the kind of bureaucratic indifference that makes people hate their government. Across the country, thousands of people who suffered serious injuries that prevented them from working were being sued for student loans they had no chance of repaying. Many had been classified as disabled by the Social Security Administration and were already receiving government assistance. But the Education Ministry, which deals with loan cancellations, insisted borrowers go through a separate set of hoops to prove they were unable to work. In some cases, the ministry would seize Social Security payments sent to people with disabilities who were behind on their loans.
We published Sasha’s story on February 13, 2011. She introduced readers to Tina Brooks, a former police officer who fractured one vertebra in her back and damaged three others in her neck when she plunged 15 feet. in a steep quarry while training for a bicycle patrol. . Although five doctors and a Social Security judge all agreed that she was completely disabled, education ministry officials continued to insist that she pay back $ 43,000 in loans.
It was one of those stories where every paragraph drives you crazier.
“I’m a cop and I know how to fill out papers,” Brooks told Sasha. “But when you try to conform to people and they don’t tell you the rules, I might as well hit my head against the wall.”
ProPublica is unusual among news organizations in that we measure our success by the tangible impact of our stories. As editors and journalists, we are trained to try to make every story well written, fair, solidly documented, and maybe even worthy of a prize. But Herb and Marion Sandler, the founders of ProPublica, said from the start that they had a higher goal for ProPublica: that our stories should make a difference.
It is a difficult target to hit. Journalists, myself included, are notoriously poor at predicting which stories will spur change. Sometimes we reveal absolutely outrageous abuse and the reaction is muted. Other times people explode with anger and change happens overnight. New reporters hired by other organizations frequently ask: What is a ProPublica story? My response is that readers should end one of our investigative articles with a clear understanding of what is wrong and to whom they should send a letter (or email) demanding immediate action.
I expected our 2011 article on people with disabilities and student loans to spark swift action. Congress had previously demanded that the Education Department improve its handling of disability cases. An internal audit, which we obtained, found that the department was not following its own rules. It seemed like political obviousness to intervene, both to members of Congress and to the Obama administration. They could be commended for taking an approach both legally required and a gesture of human decency.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, little of this has happened. The education ministry made some modest improvements, but continued to insist people fill out requests for relief. The process remained cumbersome and the onus fell on the disabled person to prove that they were entitled to compensation. Few of the loans have been canceled.
It was only last month that the ministry announced it was adopting a new policy in which people deemed severely disabled by the SSA would automatically have their loans canceled. The technique? A simple computer search that would match the names of people receiving disability benefits with the names of student loan borrowers. Officials said they would write off $ 5.8 billion in loans. Clearly, the existing procedures had not worked for the vast majority of borrowers with disabilities.
I asked Sasha what ultimately made the difference. His answer, unsurprisingly, was politics. The left wing of the Democratic Party, especially the senses. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, lobbied the Biden administration to launch a massive relief program for 43 million Americans owe nearly $ 1.6 trillion in student loans. President Joe Biden never endorsed this idea. But as Sasha points out, “this solution for borrowers with disabilities was something no one could reasonably object to.” The obvious solution, he said, has always existed, but it “took a lot of time and a lot of unnecessary hardship” before it was politically beneficial for those with the power to impose change.
It should be noted that this story is not yet over. The Department of Education continues to deny debt relief to a significant number of student loan borrowers who receive federal disability benefits – people whose disabilities are considered severe by the SSA, but who , she said, has some chance of abating in the future.
Remarkably, one of the people we interviewed in 2011, a carpenter and designer with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is among those who remain at the mercy of his student loans. He has tried to return to work several times since 2011, but his medical problems made it impossible. ASS officials say his lung disease may one day improve enough to allow him to work.
“There is no improvement in COPD,” said carpenter, Scott Creighton, in our recent history. “Since I last spoke to you, I have had a pulmonary embolism and had a heart attack.”
Some have argued in recent years that we live in a post-shame era, that highlighting outrageous wrongdoing no longer brings results. For those who think this is true, I suggest you visit the page where we list the stories that had an impact. Hope you find it inspiring. I do.