The Pell Grant program: Generation of Black and Hispanic Americans was disproportionately shut out of one of the keys to Biden’s plan with student loan forgiveness

Joe Biden, the Vice President of the United States, has expressed his optimism that his proposal to cancel federal student loans will help to close the wealth gap that exists in the country. Pell Grants, which were a fundamental component of Biden’s strategy, were, however, inaccessible to a significant number of people of African and Hispanic descent in the United States.

An estimated number of hundreds of thousands of convicted drug offenders had their access to federal financial aid, such as Pell Grants and student loans, delayed or denied as a consequence of the “war on drugs,” a consequential anti-crime legislative agenda that Biden championed while serving as a senator in the United States. This agenda was supported by Biden. These criminals had little choice but to take out larger, more expensive, and frequently exploitative private student loans if they wished to continue their education after serving their sentences in prison.

Some were dissuaded from applying for federal aid as a result of the requirement that they declare their drug history on the application for financial aid, while others either delayed entering college or stopped going to school altogether.

Because of drug regulations enacted in the 1990s that imposed severe penalties for crack cocaine and marijuana offenses, the population that has suffered the most as a result of these policies has been men of African and Latino descent. The number of black men locked up in prisons has increased dramatically in recent years. The laws were in effect for the whole quarter of a century until Congress lifted the ban on Pell Grants in the year 2020.

The weight of America’s student loan debt, which has already surpassed $1.6 trillion, “is especially hard on Black and Hispanic borrowers,” Biden said last week when he announced the forgiveness plan. This is because Black and Hispanic borrowers, on average, have less family wealth to pay for it.

Individuals whose yearly incomes are less than $125,000 or families whose annual incomes are less than $250,000 are eligible to have up to $10,000 of their student loan debt forgiven by the current government. And this offer increases the amount of debt relief for borrowers who also got Pell Grants, which is a federal program that provides the neediest undergraduate students with money that they do not have to repay, to a total of $20,000.

Studies have shown that one of the most successful forms of financial assistance in the United States, known as the Pell Grant, assists more than half of Black students and over half of Hispanic students in affording higher education. More than sixty percent of the 43 million borrowers who are potentially qualified for debt relief under Biden’s plan are reportedly Pell Grant holders. This information comes from the White House.

In a statement to The Associated Press, the White House stated that the student debt relief package will eliminate approximately half of the average debt carried by Black and Hispanic borrowers. This does not include the additional $10,000 cancellation for Pell Grant holders.

Advocates for criminal justice reform argue that the president’s solutions to the student debt crisis need to be as all-encompassing as the anti-drug laws were in order to be effective in the midst of the ongoing debate regarding whether or not Biden’s forgiveness plan goes far enough for disproportionately indebted communities.

“I think there’s a particular onus on this administration and on this president to be part of the solution for issues that he was very deeply involved in,” said Melissa Moore, the director of civil systems reform at Drug Policy Alliance.

A whole generation of people who have been incarcerated for drug crimes took out loans to pay for their education, but they are not eligible for Pell Grants or federal loans, and they will not have any of their student debt discharged. According to a report on private loan debt from the Student Borrower Protection Center, the likelihood of financial difficulty in the process of repaying private loans is four times higher for black students than it is for white students.

“For people who previously would have had to check that box, there should be some mechanism by which, if you were excluded in the past, you are prioritized now for relief,” Moore said.

As a direct result of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs in 1971, the number of people serving time in federal and state prisons in the United States increased from 240,593 to 1.43 million between 1975 and 2019, according to a review conducted by the Associated Press (AP) in the previous year. A drug offense was listed as the most serious felony committed by almost one out of every five people who were incarcerated.

In response to an alarming national spike in violent crime tied to the illegal drug trade, Nixon’s Democratic and Republican presidential successors would go on to amplify drug war tactics. This would cement the drug war’s legacy.

The incarceration rates for African Americans and Hispanic Americans tripled between 1970 and 2000 as a direct result of the enactment of laws at the state and federal level that increased the penalty for crack cocaine and other drugs. When compared, the rate of white incarceration only increased by a factor of two during that same stretch of time.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was sponsored by Biden, made it illegal for persons serving time in federal or state jail to receive Pell Grants or any other form of federal financial assistance. It is said that Senator Biden, who was serving at the time, was against the amendment that included the prohibition in his measure. His spokesperson stated at the time that Biden believed education programs had the potential to interrupt the cycle of recidivism among persons who had previously served time in prison.

In the end, Biden put in a lot of hard effort to get the criminal justice reform law that he sponsored passed. The once excellent academic programs offered in state and federal prisons around the country have experienced a significant decline.

Later, in 1998, Congress broadened the restriction to disqualify any student with a state or federal drug conviction from obtaining Pell Grants and federal student loans. Depending on the number of convictions, the student could be barred from receiving aid for as little as one year or indefinitely. Despite the fact that his position on the Pell Grant provision was not entirely clear, Biden cast his vote in favor of the proposal.

According to an estimate provided by the United States Government Accountability Office, the measure resulted in a reduction of between $41 million and $54 million in annual Pell Grant funding and between $100 million and $164 million in annual federal student loan funding for more than 140,000 prospective college students in just the five years following the implementation of the expanded ban.

In spite of this, the prohibition on giving funding to drug offenders was relaxed by Congress in the year 2006. It only applied to students whose convictions occurred while they were receiving federal student help, which considerably narrowed its effect. However, analysts claim that the law still prompted hundreds of enrolled students to drop out of college when they lost their funding because of the statute. When Congress in December 2020 passed the omnibus spending and COVID-19 relief legislation, it completely eliminated the limitation on Pell Grants being awarded to those who were incarcerated at the time.

Although drug convictions do not influence a student’s eligibility for financial aid, the question concerning eligibility is still there on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. The Second Chance Pell Program, which offers financial assistance to jailed students so that they can enroll in academic programs, had its eligibility requirements increased in April by the United States Department of Education. According to the Department of Education, the beginning of an additional extension of Pell Grants to students who are incarcerated will begin in July of 2023.

The legacy of the war on drugs almost prevented DeAnna Hoskins from receiving the critical financial assistance in the form of Pell Grants and student loans. She went to college after being released from prison, and as luck would have it, it was right around the time that Congress repealed the bar on giving financial aid to those with drug convictions.

“The ’94 crime bill was so comprehensive in the destruction that it did,” said Hoskins, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform group. She questions how Biden’s debt relief plan was crafted. “I feel like you’re piecemealing our liberation back to us.”

Because of the prohibition on receiving Pell Grants, tens of thousands of people have been forced to take out private student loans at extremely high interest rates, as Hoskins pointed out.

“This is why it’s so important, when decisions like this are being made, that the voices of people with lived experiences are present,” she said. “We can help you obtain the equity you’re seeking.”

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