Young people are gloomy about the economy. Will they sour on Biden?

For some with student loans, Biden's loan cancellation efforts are divisive.

December 9, 2023, 5:03 AM

Ashley Robinson has been paying her student loans for over a decade, consistently unable to chip away at $50,000 in debt because interest replaces the payments she makes. President Joe Biden's debt relief efforts last fall offered a moment of elation and then, quickly, deep disappointment.

"In terms of a massive, broken promise? Yeah, I think that definitely negatively impacts how I feel toward him," said Robinson, 33, a D.C.-based independent consultant.

Biden announced a plan to relieve the debts of 43 million Americans last year, allowing between $10,000 and $20,000 in cancellation to people who made below a certain income.

The attempt -- a campaign promise from the president -- was overturned by the Supreme Court this past summer, leaving the administration with far narrower pathways to pursue for student debt reform.

For many young voters, disappointment over student loan relief bleeds into the gloomy sentiment of the economy at large, the top election issue in the latest ABC News/Ipsos polling from November and one that threatens Biden's enthusiasm among a key voting bloc: the youth.

Seven in 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 believe that the economy is either "very bad" or "fairly bad," according to a poll conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School in October and November.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Like their older counterparts, young people have faced rapidly increasing prices for everyday essentials and higher rates for borrowing on credit cards or mortgages over the past year. But they're more likely to have weathered such financial challenges alongside student debt.

Because of the strong trend of young people voting for Democrats, their displeasure may not prove a decisive factor in the election next year -- but for voters like Robinson, she says it contributes to a sense of apathy all the same.

"I'm not enthusiastic about voting, but voting is something that's important to me. So I continue to participate," she said.

Recognizing that Biden faced few ways to achieve debt relief without relying on executive power given the split majority in Congress, and that even those efforts were shut down by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, Robinson said she knows it's not "going to be a cakewalk for anyone."

Still, it feeds into her broader sentiment about Biden and his administration: That it's "just simply not as progressive as I've needed it to be."

"I genuinely believe that this is Biden's best, but I don't believe that Biden's best is sufficient," she said, adding that she wished he had been more proactive and aggressive in delivering relief.

Turnout has been high among young voters in the last two election cycles, though -- and Robinson says she'll be one of them come 2024.

Abby Kiesa, the Deputy Director of CIRCLE, an independent research organization focused on youth civic engagement at Tufts University, says that's because young voters are driven by a combination of issues.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on student loan debt forgiveness, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Oct. 4, 2023, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

"I don't necessarily think the lack of cancellation of all student loan debt tanks Biden's ability to really talk with young voters," Kiesa said.

About 12% of youth put student loan debt into their top three issues, while Black voters are twice as likely to list it in their top three, Kiesa said, citing a recent CIRCLE survey from November.

With 11 months to go, Kiesa said the impact of Biden's failed student debt relief policy could be determined by how much he's able to communicate what else his administration has done.

Over 3.6 million people have received some form of debt relief under Biden for a total of $132 billion. The Education Department has also rolled out a new payment plan, the SAVE Plan, that it calls the most affordable option for the majority of borrowers.

And the administration is working on a narrower debt relief policy, likely to be unveiled before the 2024 election, that will aim to target borrowers who have been the hardest hit by loans. But it, too, could face legal challenges.

The large majority of people who have received debt relief are those who were in faulty programs, either income-driven repayment plans or the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Both programs have been plagued with systemic failures that didn't allow people to receive the debt relief that was promised to them once they hit a certain number of years in repayment.

Over 900,000 people have gotten debt relief through fixes to the income-driven repayment system, and almost 750,000 people have gotten relief through fixes to the PSLF program.

One young person with student debt who spoke to ABC News, Liam Gude, hasn't been the recipient of any of that relief and even thought Biden's initial policy was too skimpy.

After landing a job this fall as an environmental planner, Gude said he vaulted from years of low-paid work into the middle class, giving him every reason to be optimistic about the nation's robust job market and wider economy.

Instead, Gude feels downbeat, blaming President Biden for a failure to achieve major student debt cancellation that has left Gude saddled with $98,000 in loans.

"Biden has taken the most milquetoast position that he could," Gude, 30, said of an executive order that would have canceled up to $20,000 in debt per borrower but was struck down by the Supreme Court in June.

"That would have been a drop in the bucket," said Gude, a self-identified progressive who lives in Western Massachusetts. "It's laughable – it's an insult."

Gude takes issue with other economic policies, such as a series of interest rates at the Federal Reserve that, in theory, threaten to drive up unemployment in an effort to fight inflation. Biden's handling of the Israel-Gaza war have also disappointed Gude, he said

Still, he acknowledged, "Biden is way better than Trump." But that doesn't necessarily mean Gude will vote for Biden, he said, noting he wants to see more progressive proposals, including an ambitious effort to cancel student debt.

Some young people with student debt said they plan to vote for Biden despite his failure to secure ambitious debt cancellation.

Michael Stewart, a student loan borrower, said he was more excited about Biden during the 2020 campaign due in part to his promise to address education-related debt. But, Stewart added, some of that enthusiasm also stemmed from a distaste for Biden's opponent.

"I definitely was more excited for him four years ago but that's because of the alternative," Stewart told ABC News.

After casting a vote for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary, Stewart threw his support behind Biden – and he intends to do the same next year. While Biden failed to achieve his campaign promise on student debt relief, he made a legitimate effort, Stewart added.

"I really fault him 0%," Stewart said. "He did all he could."