Why it may be hard to close the racial wealth gap without forgiving student debt

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  • President Joe Biden’s plan to close the racial wealth gap includes making it easier for Black people to buy homes and start businesses.
  • But without addressing student loan debt, activists say those goals may never be fully realized.

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President Joe Biden laid out a plan this week to narrow the racial wealth gap in the U.S. Many were disappointed not to see any mention of student loan forgiveness in that agenda.

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The president’s initiatives, announced 100 years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, will include tackling racial discrimination in the housing market and directing an additional $100 billion toward small, disadvantaged businesses over the next five years.

While activists applauded those moves, they said that without forgiving student loans, their benefits may never be fully realized. Research shows education debt can make it harder to start and run a business, as well as get approved for a mortgage.

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“Housing and businesses are important drivers to build wealth for Black people,” said Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

“However, if President Biden does not address the student loan crisis, Black households will be disproportionately unable to become homeowners or start businesses because of high debt-income ratios,” he added.

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Half of young people who own a business or who have plans to do so said that student debt was one of the primary challenges, one survey found. Meanwhile, there’s been a steep decline in homeownership among Americans between the ages of 24 and 32, and the Federal Reserve largely blames student debt.

Black borrowers are hit especially hard by these consequences.

In large part because of the racial wealth gap, Black students have to borrow more for their education than their white peers. Around 85% of Black college students take out loans, compared with 69% of white students, according to data analyzed by higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz.

Wage inequities mean Black borrowers also aren’t able to pay down their loans as quickly as their white peers, and nearly 20% end up defaulting on their student loans, compared with under 10% of white student loan borrowers, Kantrowitz found.

“African Americans, who went to school to improve their plight in America, are finding themselves stifled by the sheer weight of student debt,” said Marc Banks, a spokesman for the NAACP.

“Therefore, they are not seeing significant movement on building wealth or a change to their financial situation.”

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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