TIME Op-Ed: Americans are Drowning in $1.5 Trillion of Student Loan Debt. There's One Easy Way Congress Could Help
Aug 28 2019
Americans are Drowning in $1.5 Trillion of Student Loan Debt. There's One Easy Way Congress Could Help
By Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD)
Every summer, college graduates around the country don their caps and gowns in celebration of a job well done, with the hopes of using their degrees to propel them into a successful career.
But for many young Americans entering the workplace, that first job will also bring with it the first payment on tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt — debt that can take them decades to pay off.
While college is certainly not the only path to a good job, the fact is more than half of all jobs paying over $35,000 require a bachelor’s degree or higher — and that number is only expected to grow.
Americans are following the money. Today more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which has become the one of the biggest consumer debt categories. All told, student debt in the U.S. now totals more than $1.5 trillion.
For South Dakotans, more than 109,000 borrowers hold $3.3 billion in total outstanding federal student loan debt, according to recent data from the Department of Education. That averages out to more than $30,000 per borrower. In Virginia, more than 1 million borrowers hold $38 billion in total outstanding debt. Across America, it’s estimated that the average borrower has more than $37,000 in debt, while more than 2 million student loan borrowers owe $100,000 or more — and these figures continue to rise.
As a result of this growing student debt crisis, many borrowers struggle to pay for day-to-day necessities like rent, groceries or car payments. For others, their student debt stands in the way of buying a home, starting a business or pursuing a new career opportunity.
While the federal government already provides some assistance to those who are eligible, much more can be done to help graduates responsibly pay down their student debt and help employers recruit and retain qualified candidates for good-paying jobs.
That is why we introduced the bipartisan Employer Participation in Repayment Act. Employers can already contribute up to $5,250 each year tax free to help cover the education expenses of students who are working while taking classes. Our legislation would expand this benefit to allow employers to provide the same tax-free contributions to their employees who are no longer in school and help them pay down their student loan debt. Right now, borrowers pay taxes on any contributions their employer makes toward their student loans. Our bill would help employees pay down their student debt more quickly and put more of their hard-earned money toward buying a home, starting a business, or saving for the future.
This is an obvious benefit for graduates, but it would also give employers a new tool and benefit option that would help them attract and retain top-level talent. This is a win-win scenario for graduates, for businesses and for the American economy.
We know this bipartisan legislation isn’t a silver bullet. More must be done to bring down the cost of higher education and expand opportunities for those Americans who choose not to go to college. But for the millions of Americans currently saddled with student debt, our bill would begin to ease that burden almost immediately.
Our bill can pass Congress and get the president’s signature this year. With more than one-third of both the House and the Senate signed on as cosponsors and a wide variety of endorsing stakeholder groups, our bill has earned the type of consensus support that’s not easily found in Washington these days. Several major companies have already committed to introducing student loan repayment benefits if Congress steps up and makes this fix. Let’s give employees the chance to take them up on the offer.
By working together in support of this bill, Democrats and Republicans can help give student borrowers some relief and put them on the pathway to success.
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the rise of globalization and new technologies dramatically changed our nation’s economy. Small towns once home to thriving factories, plants, and mills saw entire industries disappear along with many jobs, and the families who relied on them to put food on the table. These losses were later compounded by the Great Recession, which hit rural areas particularly hard.
Despite the many challenges they have faced, folks in rural communities across the country have been banding together and working to revive the towns and neighborhoods they grew up in.
I’ve seen firsthand examples of this throughout Virginia, in places such as the Danville River District, where entrepreneurs, with the help of federal economic development tools such as the historic tax credit, are revitalizing old buildings and opening up restaurants, breweries, and high-tech companies, among a host of other new ventures launched in the last several years.
However, too many communities across our Commonwealth still face a shortage of investment and opportunity. Even as our larger cities grow and expand, we simply can’t afford to leave our smaller and more rural towns behind.
That’s why I was proud to work recently with a bipartisan group of Senators to write and introduce the Rural Jobs Act. Instead of Washington trying to reinvent the wheel, this legislation tackles the issue of rural job creation head-on, using tools we already know to be effective at expanding economic opportunities.
Our legislation will build on the success of an existing program known as the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) to kick-start rural economies in Virginia and across the nation, increasing the flow of private dollars to distressed and underserved areas. Currently, the NMTC program gives private investors a modest tax incentive to encourage them to invest in low-income areas. This program has already been proven beneficial for both investors and the communities where they create jobs and build new businesses. In fact, every taxpayer dollar used for the NMTC generates eight times that amount in private investment.
Since its creation in 2003, the NMTC has spurred $1.4 billion in private investment here in Virginia. In Roanoke, for example, the NMTC has supported job-creating renovations at the Claude Moore Culinary School and the Roanoke City Market.
But while the NMTC has created thousands of jobs across the Commonwealth, the truth is, this program could be doing more to support economic growth in less-urban areas.
That’s where our bill comes in. Many Virginians in rural towns are eager to see their communities flourish with innovative businesses. But too often they’re at a disadvantage when competing with larger municipalities. Our legislation would level that playing field.
The Rural Jobs Act would fuel investment in distressed towns throughout Virginia by setting aside $ 1 billion in NMTC funds over two years specifically for areas designated as Rural Job Zones – low-income rural census tracts with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants.
Virginia would have more qualified census tracts than almost any other state, giving towns across Southside and Southwest Virginia an extra boost to help attract business and spur economic development. Importantly, the Rural Jobs Act would work alongside other economic development tools, like the already-successful historic and low-income housing tax credits, and newer ideas, like the “opportunity zones” that were part of the 2017 tax bill, to jumpstart growth across rural America.
The New Markets Tax Credit has already helped create more than 14,500 Virginia jobs. The Rural Jobs Act will help build on this success and make sure rural communities are able to take full advantage of the business-friendly environment for which Virginia is nationally recognized.
CNBC Op-Ed: All the good jobs in America are at risk of going to a handful of cities, but there’s still time to stop it
Jun 12 2019
All the good jobs in America are at risk of going to a handful of cities, but there’s still time to stop it
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
The truth is, the opportunity to earn a good life through hard work is moving out of reach for too many Americans. As someone who has benefited greatly from our free enterprise system as an entrepreneur, I recognize that modern American capitalism just isn’t working for enough people in this country.
Over the last 50 years, globalization, automation and disruptive technologies have both destroyed and created millions of jobs. But the benefits have not been spread evenly. The result is an inequality of opportunity, with new, good-paying jobs increasingly concentrated in a handful of urban centers, available to a small, skilled workforce that does not represent the racial, geographic and socioeconomic diversity of our country.
Workers now face not only historic income inequality but great income insecurity due to the growing threat of their jobs being automated, outsourced or eliminated in the next round of corporate mergers. These problems are only made worse by companies that put short-term profits ahead of long-term growth — prioritizing mergers and acquisitions over investments in their physical and human capital.
Unfortunately, the temptation for policymakers is to treat the symptoms of inequality when what we really need is a new economic model to prepare Americans for work in the 21st century.
Let’s address the issue of income insecurity and recognize that many folks aren’t working one job for their entire career or even one job at a time. We need federal and local government to experiment with industry to develop a portable benefits system to follow workers from job to job and gig to gig.
We also need to think big. We need real bipartisan tax reform that rewards hard work and investments in American workers. Now, if a company buys a new robot to replace its workers, that’s an asset. If the company invests in training its workers, that’s an expense. Let’s fix that. While we’re at it, let’s replicate the success of the R&D tax credit and give companies an incentive to train low- and moderate-income workers to help them climb the economic ladder.
We need to do this if we are serious about closing a skills gap that will only get worse with automation. One recent study found that by the year 2030, up to one-third of American workers will need to retrain or change jobs to keep up with disruptions due to automation and a changing economy. We need to radically change our approach to job training in this country, from investments in community and technical colleges, to apprenticeship programs, to savings accounts that aid in lifelong learning.
The American dream might feel like it’s fading away. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Done right, we can rebalance the economic scales a little more in favor of American workers while nurturing the competitive spirit that built the U.S. economy into the dominant global force it is today.
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
It isn’t rocket science. When you have to ride the bus an hour round-trip just to buy fresh vegetables, you eat fewer fresh vegetables. When the grocery store is a two-mile walk, but the fast food restaurant or corner store that only sells processed foods are just down the street, you’re probably going to end up eating more processed foods. Unfortunately, this is the daily reality for an estimated 39 million Americans who live in “food deserts” — areas with no grocery stores within one or more miles in urban regions, and 10 or more miles in rural regions. Here in Hampton Roads, approximately 400,000 thousand people live in food deserts.
I don’t think it’s right that, in the richest country in the world, a person’s ZIP code should be a sentence to a lifetime of poor nutrition and the health problems that go with it. Families in Virginia deserve reliable access to healthy and affordable foods no matter where they live. That’s why I introduced legislation to help end food deserts here in Virginia and around the country.
This bipartisan legislation would spark investment in food deserts across the country by providing tax credits or grants to providers who open a new store or retrofit an existing store to offer more fresh foods.
A big part of the challenge is convincing grocers to take a chance on investing in a neighborhood that may be lower income and may not have had a grocery store for many years. My bill would provide a one-time tax credit to help grocers “get to yes” on investing in food desert neighborhoods.
But while bringing more grocery stores to food deserts is an important part of the solution, it can’t be our only approach. There is likely no single silver bullet to ending food deserts and the problems associated with them. Just putting some organic produce on the shelf won’t be enough on its own to change nutritional habits in communities where fresh foods have been scarce for many years.
That’s where community organizations and food banks are absolutely essential. Across the country, community organizations are experimenting with mobile food markets and other solutions that reintroduce fresh produce directly into food deserts. This legislation would also support these innovative efforts.
Hampton Roads is surrounded by some of the best sources of fresh food — the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay. We need to rebuild the connections between farmers and the communities that eat their food.
This legislation may not end food deserts once and for all. But that doesn’t mean the federal government shouldn’t use its resources to help solve a problem that affects millions of Americans and contributes to serious, but preventable, health problems.
I reject the notion that only those who can afford a car or a house near a grocery store deserve access to healthy food. If we have the tools to help military families, people of color or people with lower incomes get better access to healthy foods, then we should use them.
The Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act takes these tools that we have — tax credits to help build grocery stores or expand their healthy food sections, grants for food banks and mobile food options — and it puts them to work.
This a solvable problem. It’s time for Congress to do its part and empower communities to end food deserts.
Keeping our promise to Virginia's miners
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
In the Bristol Herald Courier
Standing up for our retired miners and their families has brought coal state Republicans and Democrats together in the past. Now, once again, it’s time for representatives from both parties to put partisanship aside and go to bat for Virginia’s miners — before it’s too late.
Earlier this year, a federal court allowed the Westmoreland Coal Co., which operated the Bullitt Mine in Wise County, to sever its United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) union contracts with current and former workers. Now, more than 1,200 miners and their dependents around the country, including some 500 here in Virginia, stand to lose their pensions and health care coverage.
Frankly, it’s a disgrace that a company can go to court and leave its workers out in the cold, so that the company’s creditors can continue to get paid. We do need to reform our bankruptcy system, but right now my main concern is making sure these miners and their families don’t lose their hard-earned benefits. While these miners have reached a temporary settlement with Westmoreland to extend their health care benefits for a few months, the fact is, they will be left with nothing if Congress does not act soon.
That’s why I’ve teamed up with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to introduce the American Miners Act. This bill would preserve the Westmoreland miners’ pensions and health benefits by making them eligible for benefits under the Coal Act fund — a program for “orphan” miners whose companies are no longer operating.
These are hard working men and women who have endured years of back-breaking work in order to fuel the economic success of our Commonwealth. Now it’s time for the federal government to deliver on the promise it made to our miners.
In 1946, the federal government, under President Truman, made a promise to protect the hard-earned retirement and health care benefits of UMWA miners — to honor their hard work and sacrifice.
This landmark agreement gave America’s miners the security they needed and deserved. Since that time, they’ve worked hard and done everything that has been asked of them.
Now it’s time for the federal government to hold up its end of the bargain — for the Westmoreland miners, and for the thousands of UMWA retirees whose pensions are still in jeopardy.
We are coming up on the two-year anniversary of our bipartisan victory securing healthcare benefits for more than 22,000 miners and their families. This was an important win for coal country, but our work is not done yet. The pensions our miners have earned are still on the chopping block, and recent coal company bankruptcies like Westmoreland’s threaten the progress we’ve made so far.
Passing the American Miners Act will make sure that miners’ healthcare benefits and pensions will be protected going forward.
We also need to recognize that both UMWA and non-union miners across Virginia have experienced hardships, as their families have lost hard-earned benefits. All Virginia miners and their families deserve to be treated fairly and receive the benefits they have earned during their career as miners.
One of the ways we can do this is by making sure we preserve resources for those miners who have developed black lung disease. The American Miners Act strengthens the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides critical benefits for thousands of retirees suffering from this deadly disease. Coal miners in Southwest Virginia have been some of the hardest hit by black lung, and Virginia is ground zero for the recent outbreak of advanced cases of the disease known as complicated black lung.
Unfortunately, Congressional Republican leadership allowed a key funding source for the trust fund to expire in December. If we fail to restore funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, miners struggling with this debilitating disease may not have access to the high-quality care they deserve, beginning as soon as next year.
It’s far past time to fix this problem. Our miners have paid their dues and earned their benefits. Now it’s our turn to secure their healthcare and pensions and shore up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
The President campaigned on a promise to take care of our coal miners, and frankly, so did I. Now is the time for us all to leave our Republican and Democrat hats at the door and work together to get this done. The federal government must not turn its back on a generation of miners who risked their lives and health to fuel our nation.