Even before the pandemic cost Adam Anderson his job, repaying his student loans was a challenge. He owes more than $60,000.
He earned around $50,000 a year as a physical therapy assistant in Clearwater, Florida, but after his rent, other bills and student loans were paid off each month, little, if any money, was left over. "The day you get paid, you're already counting down the days to your next paycheck," Anderson, 31, said. When he was laid off in May, his bank account balance was less than $2,000.
He's only been able to land a part-time job of late and his hours are inconsistent.
"When you're just working six to 15 hours, you're not bringing home much," he said.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has granted student loan borrowers a break from their bills until the end of the year, but Anderson doesn't know how he's going to start making payments again come January.
He's not even sure how he's going to make rent.
"We're going to have to have a hard discussion with our landlord," he said, if he isn't able to work more hours over the next few weeks.
Yet after months of financial stress, Anderson, along with millions of other student loan borrowers, was at least given a little hope when Joe Biden won the presidential election. On the campaign trail, Biden had said he would forgive $10,000 of the debt for all borrowers, and the rest for those who attended public colleges or historically Black colleges and universities and earn less than $125,000 a year.
The student loan crisis has been particularly painful to Black borrowers, with nearly 85% of Black college graduates carrying education debt, compared with 69% of White college graduates. And due to racial wealth and income inequities in the U.S., Black borrowers suffer higher default rates and are also stuck in debt much longer than their White peers.
Biden's student loan forgiveness plan, while it's much narrower than the relief proposed by his opponents on the left in the Democratic primary, would still reset around 10 million borrowers' balances to zero, according to calculations by higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz. In all, the policy would slash the country's $1.7 trillion outstanding student loan tab by about a third.
Biden's proposal is a response to a growing hunger for change.
Education debt burdens Americans more than credit card or auto debt, and even as the country was in the midst of its longest economic expansion in history and unemployment levels were at half-century lows, more than 1 in 4 student loan borrowers were either in delinquency or default.
Over half of Americans say student debt is "a major problem" for the country, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll. And one survey found that 58% of registered voters are in support of student loan forgiveness. More than 730,000 people have signed a Change.org petition titled, "Joe Biden: Erase Student Loans!"
"For the first time in years, I will be at peace," said Anderson, who stands to have a large portion of his debt wiped out should Biden's proposal become a reality. He attended the University of Indianapolis.
That debt relief would open doors to him that his monthly student loan payments currently keep shut.
"I think my wife and I would be able to start saving," Anderson said. They could also think about starting a family, he said, adding that it feels incredibly important to him to have a child.
Growing up, his father was barely in his life. "He dropped in when it was convenient for him," Anderson said. He wants to do better. "I could be there for someone," he said.
"But I can't foresee a situation in which I can have a child and care for him or her, while also being crushed by student loans," he said. "I feel like I may be 50 before I can start my life. It's heartbreaking."
Student loans define people's lives in countless ways. Indeed, research has found that up to 40% of those with large balances say the debt has caused them to postpone parenthood. The loans also make it harder for people to buy homes, start businesses and salt away money for their old age.
Biden's chance of passing legislation that would lower or eliminate people's student loan balances mostly depends on the composition of the Senate, which is still in the balance. "Generally, Democrats favor student loan forgiveness while Republicans oppose it," Kantrowitz said.
Biden may have another way to deliver relief to borrowers.
There's an argument gaining steam that the president can bypass Congress to forgive student loan debt. (Had she become president, that's what Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had promised to do). The President-elect Biden hasn't signaled yet whether or not he would consider that route, which is likely to run into court challenges.
Keenan Griego, a nurse practitioner in Vancouver, Washington, who has worked with hundreds of Covid-19 patients over the last few months, owes more than $145,000 in student debt, much of which he'd see cancelled should Biden's promises become policy.
He's been dreading the $1,200 monthly student loan payment he'll have to start making in January. After the election, though, he's a little more optimistic.
"My hopes are much higher with the Biden administration coming in," Griego said.
"You go to school for all these years to be able to help, but then you end up with an insurmountable amount of debt," he said. Like so many borrowers, he said he's had to put off homeownership and starting a family with his wife, Alexandria, an occupational therapist, who owes $50,000 in student loans herself.
Currently, he works around 40 hours a week, but said he will need to get a part-time job soon if he wants to cover his monthly student loan bill and continue saving.
That will mean less time doing what he loves, like photographing nature, hiking and spending time with his family.
"You can't do that if you have to work 60 hours a week to make a student loan payment," Griego said.