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Biden gave young voters a win on student debt, but abortion tops midterm motivations

Updated October 17, 2022 at 4:01 PM ET

When Erin Moore started college, she knew she'd take on student debt.

But years later, as she walks around a market in Bucks County, Pa., making loan payments feels much more within reach.

Student loan relief "actually will make it feasible for me to pay," said Moore, a teacher in Philadelphia who qualifies for President Biden's student debt forgiveness plan. It's "so much more than I ever thought I was going to be able to do."

It's been almost two months since Biden announced his plan to forgive up to $10,000 of federal student loan debt for borrowers making under $125,000, and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients under the same income cap.

The move follows through on a campaign pledge that Biden made to younger voters.

But when Moore, 25, thinks about why she's voting in the midterms, it's not because of student loans.

"I went into school as an undergrad expecting to never pay off my student loan debt," Moore said, "but the women's right to choose directly affects me and my family and people I care about."

In other words, she's voting to protect abortion access.

Young people may want student loan forgiveness — and Biden's plan widely has majority support among Millennial and Gen Z age voters — but looming over this election is the Dobbs decision by Supreme Court last June, which overturned Roe v. Wade and left abortion rights up to the states, paving the way for several to move to effectively ban most abortions outright.

"The climate in the country really scares me, to be honest," said Shannon Thomas, 25, who's Moore's girlfriend. She has federal student loan debt as well and expects that Biden's executive action could eliminate years of future payments for her.

But she's also a labor and delivery nurse over in Bethlehem, Pa.

"I worry about my patients and I worry about my job and what the future of my job looks like if we don't get protection for women's right to choose in this state," she added.

Erin Moore (left,) and Shannon Thomas both say that while student debt cancellation is important to them, protecting abortion access is the principal reason they are voting in November.
Elena Moore / NPR
Erin Moore (left) and Shannon Thomas both say that while student debt cancellation is important to them, protecting abortion access is the principal reason they are voting in November.

Political organizers focused on engaging young voters say protecting access to reproductive care has become essential to mobilizing efforts.

"It's not to say that other issues are not important," said Dakota Hall, the executive director of Alliance for Youth Action, "but when you have had a constitutionally protected right for so many decades taken away, that impacts so many people in this country, that it has to be No. 1 priority."

He added that that doesn't mean that organizers don't care about passing environmental legislation or student loan debt or about the economy more broadly, but "we know right now what's on the line in this moment."

But other advocates say student debt is on that line too, with some advocating that the White House move to eliminate all federal student debt or at least cancel $50,000.

"I think $10,000 is kind of like a — we're going to give this to you before midterms, so you turn out to vote. But I think it's kind of like we still need more," Kyra Mitchell, 23, told NPR.

Mitchell, who votes in Michigan, is a youth board member with the NAACP. She has federal student loans and says the issue has remained a core priority of the organization, given the sizable impact student debt has on Black borrowers.

"I think student loan debt definitely adds a crippling effect to African Americans regardless of your age," she added.

On average, Black college graduates owe $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates — according to Education Data Initiative.

Mitchell, who also supports safeguarding abortion access and protecting voting rights, says debt cancellation could have an impact far beyond just student loans.

"The racial wealth gap that we have is also influencing a lot of reproductive access," Mitchell said. "And so if we can close one gap, we can also influence this other thing and have like a domino effect."

Santiago Mayer, the executive director of Voters of Tomorrow, says both student debt relief and abortion access are issues that can have similar messaging. The message: Republicans want to take away your rights.

"It all ties together into this basic message of youth rights and how young people deserve to be able to enjoy their lives in the same sort of way that their parents and grandparents were able to," he told NPR.

"Both with the rights of personal freedoms such as abortion, and also being able to have personal finances that allow them to succeed in life, which is now impossible because of the insane cost of college and the burden of student debt," he added.

That rationale resonates with a lot of young people.

Following the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court, voter registration has increased among younger voters, notably younger women. That's according to Tom Bonier, the CEO of Target Smart, a Democratic-leaning data firm.

"Historically, you see voters being more energized in an oppositional sense," Bonier told NPR. "It generally tends to organize voters, and to the extent that there's a flip side of that coin, it's generally voters being motivated to protect something."

Bonier hasn't seen any significant boosts in voter registration or turnout that he could pin on Biden's executive order on student loans — though, he says, its effect could be seen in an overall increase in support among Democratic candidates.

"I think perhaps whereas Dobbs will have the effect of turning out more younger progressive voters to help defend choice, perhaps student debt retirement, things like the Inflation Reduction Act could have the impact among more persuadable younger voters and persuading them to vote for Democratic candidates and seeing them as representing their interests more," he added.

Although the vast majority of Millennial and Gen Z voters skew liberal, Biden's plan may have some crossover among younger voters who identify as moderate Republicans — according to recent polling conducted by Avalanche Insights, the voter organization Voto Latino and the student debt cancellation advocacy group Rise.

The analysis found that a majority of moderate Republicans surveyed — who identify as "soft Trump" — either support or somewhat support Biden's executive action on loans.

And while there's no explicit correlation, Biden's approval rating among Millennial and Gen Z voters has also ticked upward over the past few months, according to NPR's polling.

The latest NPR Marist survey from late September has Biden at 48% approval among younger voters, a five-point bump from late August and a sizable change from just 31% in mid-July.

But regardless of polling and voter data, the White House still has to deliver on their promise.

On Monday afternoon, the Department of Education officially launched the applicationborrowers can use to apply for debt relief. The form was first unveiled for beta testing over the weekend and received more than 8 million applications, Biden said.

The launch comes just over three weeks before Election Day.

But, over the past several weeks, a number of Republican-led states have challenged Biden's executive action in court — arguing it is an illegal overreach of presidential authority.

Biden briefly acknowledged the lawsuits on Monday, telling reporters he doesn't expect them to get in the way of the relief program.

"Our legal judgement is that it won't," Biden said, "but they're trying to stop it."

And to Mayer, any serious threat to borrowers getting forgiveness could change mobilizing efforts again.

"Young people like it when the government acts and listens to them," he said. "And if there's one thing young people do not like, it's the government doing something and then the court taking it away."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.
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