U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Tina Smith (D-MN) filed legislation this week to forgive student-loan debt for new members of the agriculture industry.
Their bill, the Student Loan Forgiveness for Farmers and Ranchers Act, would cancel significant educational debt for those qualifying as “a beginning farmer or rancher” as well as minority, women, and veteran farmers.
Baldwin, Murphy, and Smith touted the support of the leftist National Young Farmers Coalition. Baldwin cited data from that outfit suggesting that young farmers and ranchers carry $35,660 in student debt on average and typically shoulder $208,885 in loans to finance their land and other assets.
“Right now, the cost of starting and maintaining a new farm is too expensive for many young farmers, ranchers and their families, who are often already struggling to pay off existing debt,” Baldwin said in a statement. “By helping Wisconsinites pay off their student loans, more new farmers and ranchers will be able to pursue careers in agriculture — creating jobs in the heartland, producing made-in-Wisconsin products and keeping our rural communities strong.”
While Young Farmers is the only agricultural organization whose support Baldwin and Murphy cited, the coalition does not align with the generally more conservative views of most other farming advocates. Its policy priorities include global-warming mitigation and “immigration and labor justice.”
The group’s leaders proclaim an “anti-capitalist and labor-focused perspective.” Also, it notes their collegiate work in subjects like “women’s studies” and “Latin American agrarian reform and Indigenous resistance.” Their work and volunteer backgrounds include stints at the “Climate Action Campaign,” the Obama administration, Democratic former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, labor unions and the local community bail fund.
“The Student Loan Forgiveness for Farmers and Ranchers Act provides a path out of debt for many young and beginning farmers who haven’t been able to see one before,” said Vanessa Garcia Polanco, Young Farmers’ policy campaigns co-director.
Yet agriculture economist Vincent H. Smith of Montana State University and the American Enterprise Institute told The Wisconsin Daily Star that farmers don’t typically face hardship exceeding that of the average indebted American. He observed that their debt-to-asset ratio is only 13 percent, that they experience poverty at a below-average rate, and that they already can access low-interest loans under favorable terms through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Why does a sector per se with incredibly low debt get to be treated that favorably?” Smith said. “If you’re saying, ‘Let’s give a young farmer $400,000 [or] $300,000,’ why are you not saying, ‘Let’s not give someone starting a family restaurant $300,000 to $400,000?’ This is the ‘farming is special’ story that really isn’t justified.”
He suggested that economic justice is a poor rationale for the kind of industry-specific aid the senators have proposed when Americans are much more likely to face poverty in urban settings than in agricultural ones.
Smith also said he found policymakers contradict themselves when they both encourage young Americans to invest in their higher education and insist former students have their financial obligations canceled.
“People who go into engineering, who go into medicine, who go into agriculture are acquiring vocational skills and they are borrowing funds to improve their earning power on average,” he explained. “Now, I could take you to individuals [who] have invested in higher education and gotten nothing out of it because they put nothing into it. You could imagine the sort of kid I’m thinking about — they’re just irresponsible. That’s not true for most of them.”
President Joe Biden is currently working without congressional authorization to forgive student-loan obligations for Americans more broadly, though the policy’s opponents have sued to prevent its implementation. The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments on the matter for February 28, and some court observers strongly anticipate a majority of justices will strike down Biden’s action.
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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Wisconsin Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Tammy Baldwin” by Tammy Baldwin. Photo “Tina Smith” by U.S. Senate Photographic Studio. Photo “Chris Murphy” by Chris Murphy. Background Photo “Wisconsin State Capitol” by Mike Steele. CC BY 2.0.