Wonkbook: What Obama’s student loan push would and wouldn’t do

June 10
President Barack Obama signs a Presidential Memorandum on reducing the burden of student loan debt, Monday, June 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama signs a Presidential Memorandum on reducing the burden of student loan debt, Monday, June 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: $445 billion. That's how much money that cybercrime and espionage cost the global economy every year.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: These charts show the student-loan debt problem across the states.

Wonkbook's Top 4 Stories: (1) The limits of Obama's student-debt push; (2) VA audit, by the numbers; (3) it's tough being unemployed; (4) the latest on the Medicaid expansion fights.

1. Top story: What the student-loan debt push would do — and wouldn't

Obama extends caps on student-loan payments to about 5 million people. "In an attempt to further ease heavy college debt, President Obama on Monday signed an executive order allowing millions of student-loan borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income....Most student-loan borrowers already have the option to limit payments to 10 percent of their income under recent legislation and regulations. Obama’s order on Monday extended that option to about 5 million others who were not covered by the previous changes, including those who took out loans before October 2007." Katie Zezima in The Washington Post.

Primary source: White House fact sheet.

Chart: The factors driving up college costs.

Video: President Obama's remarks.

It bears worth mentioning again... "Outstanding education debt is at a record $1.2 trillion, which includes loans taken out by students and their parents in federal and private programs. About 85 percent of that is government-backed debt. Graduates of the class of 2012 who took loans for bachelors’ degrees owed an average of $29,500, according to The Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit group. About 71 percent of those college seniors borrowed." Roger Runningen in Bloomberg.

Charts: Where is the average student-loan debt burden the largest? Niraj Chokshi in The Washington Post.

The causes and consequences of growing student loan debt. "The magnitude of the macroeconomic effect is tough to discern for straightforward correlation-not-necessarily-causation reasons. Most of the evidence is more suggestive than conclusive. Still, it suggests nothing good — and what can be said with more confidence is that higher student loan debt has a deleterious effect on the lives of the people who have it." Cardiff Garcia in the Financial Times.

How the measure works (and how grad students win big). "Borrowers with federal student loans are already eligible for a program...which reduces a monthly bill to 15 percent of discretionary income. The executive order would extend eligibility in a similar program, known as Pay as You Earn, to further reduce monthly payments to 10 percent of income. In its current form, PAYE is available only for borrowers who took out their first loans after 2007 and borrowed as recently as October 2011. The executive order on the table would get rid of those exclusions....Borrowers who were once excluded...will be able to see their monthly payments cut by as much as one-third. But the biggest windfall will probably be for people who take on a lot of debt, such as business and law students." Karen Weise in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Slight problem: The effort might not reach the people who most need it. Kelly Field in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Another problem: How many students will actually sign up? "This is the kind of announcement that makes for feel-good headlines, but, once the news cycle has passed, how much will have really changed? The fact is, there's been a serious flaw with the program up to this point: few people have actually signed up for it....Pay As You Earn isn't exactly new, and last year, enrollment did grow almost 40 percent. But the total number of borrowers now signed up is still just 1.6 million. Remember — 37 million Americans are carrying some kind of student debt. That means quite likely the vast majority of those who could get help paying off their loans just aren't asking for it." Anya Kamenetz in NPR.

What are the limits on the president's power here? "While the executive orders certainly take steps to address current problems — like poor awareness about federal repayment options — they will hardly solve the $1 trillion student debt problem on their own. The president does not have the ability to exercise his executive authority on Senator Warren’s refinance bill, nor can he control the awareness campaigns trying to target borrowers in need. Additionally, neither the president’s memorandum Monday nor Warren’s bill take steps to prevent the skyrocketing cost of college....It’s also worth noting that many of Obama’s measures will not take effect this week or even this month." Maggie McGrath in Forbes.

Explainer: Obama needs Congress for the student-loan refinancing part. Libby Nelson in Vox.

We don't yet know how much the effort will cost. "The White House hasn’t put out cost estimates on the president’s latest plan. But in prior budgets and other public documents, the administration has scored income-based repayment programs as carrying a cost. That’s because the plans lower monthly payments — by hundreds of dollars in many cases — and then forgive some debt after a set period....White House domestic policy director Cecilia Munoz said on MSNBC that it’s hard to grasp the costs because the administration doesn’t know exactly how many borrowers will enroll in income-based repayment. Education Secretary Arne Duncan later said his department will produce cost estimates during the upcoming rule-making process." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

In other education news, Common Core had a tough week. "Last week, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin reversed her previous support for the Common Core State Standards and signed legislation to repeal the new school guidelines and return to curriculum from four years ago....'We are capable of developing our own Oklahoma academic standards that will be better than Common Core,' Fallin said as she signed the bill. The state is now tasked with doing just that before 2016....And just to add to the awkwardness, Fallin is currently the chairman of the National Governor's Association, which created Common Core. Indiana and South Carolina also have pulled out of Common Core. It's starting to look like a trend." Fawn Johnson in National Journal.

Long read: How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution. Lyndsey Layton in The Washington Post.

WEISSMANN: Sen. Warren's bill is smart policy, but obviously doomed. "Elizabeth Warren is back on the student debt beat. The Massachusetts Democrat has announced that she is introducing legislation that would allow certain borrowers to 'refinance' their old education loans at today’s low government rates. To help pay for her plan, she would enact the ever-popular Buffett Rule, which would impose a minimum tax rate on millionaires. This is mostly political theater. Republicans will surely vote against the bill, which will let Democrats say the GOP sided with the rich and against students. End of scene. But I must say: So far as pieces of stunt legislation go, it’s a vast policy improvement over Warren’s last high-profile stab at the student loan issue." Jordan Weissmann in Slate.

BLOOMBERG VIEW: A better way to fix student-loan debt. "If the aim is simply to make student loans as cheap as possible...how much use is that by itself? Student loans are already affordable compared with other types of credit; making them cheaper still will fuel more borrowing and leave taxpayers on the hook for more of the tab....The greater concern is the share of students who default, now at 1-in-7 — its highest level in two decades. By that light, expanding access to income-based repayment is a good idea, as far as it goes. A more efficient idea, proposed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida earlier this year, would automatically enroll borrowers in those plans, rather than leaving students to wade through the details on their own." The Editors.

THOMPSON: This won't fix the problem. "Just a tiny fraction of eligible borrowers are currently using Pay As You Earn. This is like giving somebody with a broken leg a half-off coupon for crutches — a perfectly decent ameliorative option that only works if the injured party chooses to use it. The president has no control, or minimal control, over the most important drivers of per-capita student debt growth....These aren’t problems you can fix by executive order, or tax tweak, or House vote. They’re problems of information. They’re problems of marketing....Until we have working ideas to fix them, or otherwise bring the cost of higher ed down to OECD averages, we're still just handing out coupons to the guy with the broken leg." Derek Thompson in The Atlantic.

Top opinion

BROOKS: The new right. "Conservatives generally believe that capitalism is a machine that cures itself. Therefore, people on the right have been slow to recognize the deep structural problems that are making life harder in the new economy — that are leading to stagnant social mobility, widening inequality and pervasive insecurity. But some conservatives have begun to face these issues head on. These reform conservatives have now published a policy-laden manifesto called 'Room to Grow,' which is the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century." David Brooks in The New York Times.

FELDSTEIN: Warning: Inflation running above 2 percent. "Is the Krueger research an accurate warning that labor markets are now closer to the threshold at which inflation begins to rise despite the substantial total number of people who aren't working? By the time we do know if he's right, it may be much more difficult to contain inflationary pressures....The key to the future is how the Fed will respond when prices steadily rise above its 2% target rate while the overall unemployment rate is still relatively high. A misinterpretation of labor-market slack, and a failure to create a positive real federal-funds rate, could put the economy on a path of rapidly rising inflation." Martin Feldstein in The Wall Street Journal.

FRAKT AND CHANDRA: How to pay only for the health care you want. "One reason health insurance is expensive is that most plans cover just about every medical technology — not just the ones that work, or the ones that are worth the price. This not only drives up costs, but also forces many Americans into purchasing coverage for therapies they may not value....Structuring health plans according to value would give Americans the ability to buy whatever health care technologies they choose...without forcing others to pay for that choice. This would help address the key, though under-recognized, problem in American health care today...that Americans...spend a lot without always getting good value for the money." Austin Frakt and Amitabh Chandra in The New York Times.

GROSS: How environmental regulations spur innovation. "Part of this is the expected behavior of people who don’t like change, or who find the status quo profitable, or don’t believe the government should be in the business of demanding that industry and consumers set their sights higher. Reactionaries gonna react. But it betrays a stunning lack of historical awareness and an unseemly lack of faith. Time and again, American businesspeople and engineers have figured out new and improved ways of doing things. More often than not, higher standards, far from being punishments, are a spur to innovation." Daniel Gross in The Daily Beast.

SALAM: Immigration reform is not the most important issue for Latino voters. "There is no conservative consensus on immigration policy. Among reform conservatives, however, there is a shared conviction that embracing comprehensive immigration reform is not a political panacea for the right....None of this is to suggest that conservatives can’t or shouldn’t do more to woo Latino voters. Yet in pursuit of this goal, they’d be wise to follow the course laid out by the reformists and not the establishment. The Pew Research Center has found that core domestic policy issues like education and jobs and the economy are considerably more important to Latino voters than immigration policy." Reihan Salam in National Review.

I'm on a horse interlude: How the classic Old Spice commercial was made.

2. The new VA audit, by the numbers — and what it means

57,000: The number of VA patients waiting 90 days for their first visit. "The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday shed light on the depth of the VA scheduling scandal and substantiated claims that rank-and-file employees were directed to manipulate records. The agency said more than 57,000 new patients have waited at least 90 days for their first appointments and that about 13 percent of VA schedulers indicated they were told to falsify appointment-request dates to give the impression that wait times were shorter than they really were. The information comes from the agency’s internal audit of 731 VA medical centers, which the VA released Monday." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

More than 100,000, after you expand the time number beyond 90 days. "More than 100,000 veterans are experiencing waits of more than 90 days for appointments at medical centers run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to an internal audit released by the troubled agency on Monday....The VA said it found that in mid-May, 57,436 veterans were waiting for appointments that could not be scheduled within 90 days, while about 43,000 had appointments more than 90 days in the future." David Lawder and Emily Stephenson in Reuters.

13 percent: The percentage of VA schedulers told to falsify data. "Perhaps more stunning, the internal audit found that 13 percent of schedulers said they received instructions from supervisors to falsify data so the centers could meet performance goals. Specifically, the anonymous survey asked schedulers: 'Do you feel you receive instruction from the facility to enter a desired date other than the date a Veteran asks to be seen?' Thirteen percent said yes, and the report notes that while the reasons for answering yes varied, schedulers at 90 clinics said they were doing so 'in order to improve performance measures.'" Eyder Peralta in NPR.

Explainer: 5 numbers you must know from the VA audit. Katie Zezima in The Washington Post.

What it means on the executive front: Some near-term fixes. "The interim VA secretary said he would spend $300 million to increase hours for VA medical staffers and contract with private clinics to see veterans who are unable to get care through VA medical centers. Gibson also promised to institute new patient satisfaction surveys and said he had eliminated the 14-day scheduling goal for VA appointments, a measure that VA officials said was unrealistic and led to widespread cheating among hospital administrators whose bonuses were tied to hitting the mark. The near-term measures, however, are not likely to fix deeper problems." Greg Jaffe and Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

As for Congress: Could we see the Sanders-McCain VA bill soon? "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed Monday to take action imminently on expected reforms to the Veterans Affairs Department. The legislation, which was agreed to in principle last week, is still being drafted by Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Arizona Republican John McCain. But Reid promised Monday to bring the bill to the floor as soon as it's ready." Stacy Kaper in National Journal.

House passes its own VA accountability bill. "The congressional reaction...is starting to reach deeper into the agency, with the House on Monday passing a bill aimed at holding officials more accountable for carrying out recommendations of investigations such as the current probe....The scandal already has resulted in the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki and a House-passed bill to make it easier for the department to fire or demote Senior Executive Service members on performance grounds without appeal rights. The Senate is preparing a separate bill that would allow them a much-shortened appeals process. The House and a Senate committee further have voted to temporarily prohibit performance awards to some or all senior executives at VA." Eric Yoder in The Washington Post.

The VA halted visits to troubled hospitals. "Starting in 2011, when the VA instituted a new system to track performance standards, five VA hospitals notched consistently poor scores on a range of critical-care outcomes, including mortality and infection rates. By the first quarter of this year, that bottom-performing group had expanded to at least seven hospitals, records show. During most of that time, VA senior management suspended a long-standing program that had sent teams of doctors and monitors to its worst-performing hospitals to try to improve them, agency doctors said." Thomas M. Burton in The Wall Street Journal.

More on the VA scandal:

Veterans frustrated by long delays in opening new VA hospitals. Jenny Deam in the Los Angeles Times.

Animal sports interlude: This beagle could beat me in soccer.

3. It's tough to be unemployed right now

The mental-health consequences of unemployment. "Unemployment often exacts a toll that goes beyond economic concerns to psychological ones. Humans, after all, are not robots, and the loss of a job is not merely the loss of a paycheck but the loss of a routine, security, and connection to other people. A new poll from Gallup attempts to gauge the consequences of those losses and finds that 'unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely as those with full-time jobs to say they currently have or are being treated for depression—12.4 percent vs. 5.6 percent, respectively.' Moreover, for those who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more...the depression rate is 18 percent, nearly one in five." Rebecca J. Rosen in The Atlantic.

3 million Americans without jobless benefits thanks to congressional gridlock. "The number of Americans who would qualify for federal long-term unemployment benefits — a program Congress allowed to expire in December — has now hit 3 million, according to Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee. The 3 million mark comes months after the Senate passed a bipartisan deal that would have restored federally-provided long-term unemployment benefits, but that bill was never taken up for a vote in the GOP-controlled House." Wesley Lowery in The Washington Post.

The jobs situation is getting better for teens. "After several years in the doldrums teen employment appears to be improving, according to a report Monday from a workplace consultancy that tracks labor force issues. Employment among teenagers aged 16 to 19 rose by 219,000 in May, the largest such gain for the month in eight years, said the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Analyzing data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Challenger said there are more than 4.47 million teens working as the summer hiring season begins, peaking in July." Kevin G. Hall in McClatchy Newspapers.

Related: What about young graduates? Janet Lorin and Jeanna Smialek in Bloomberg.

Where are the missing workers? "In May, the U.S. workforce-participation rate — the combination of those with jobs and unemployed workers actively seeking them - was just 62.8 percent, the same as the month before. Job markets have been essentially flat since October. Where have all the missing workers gone? A key factor, nearly all agree, is the growing exodus from the job market of Baby Boomers....Another reason is that some employment-intensive industries that suffered the most during the Great Recession, especially in manufacturing and construction, have yet to fully rebound. But perhaps the most significant factor is unemployed workers 'who just drop out of the job market after one, two or three years of looking for work and not being successful.'" Tom Raum in the Associated Press.

Other labor reads:

Supermarket wages have declined nearly 25 percent since 1999, study finds. Marc Lifsher in the Los Angeles Times.

Vermont enacts highest minimum wage in the U.S. Reuters.

Animals interlude: Check out this geese marching band.

4. The latest on the Medicaid expansion fights

A city that's divided by access to Medicaid. "Arkansas accepted the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act. Texas did not. That makes Texarkana perhaps the starkest example of how President Obama’s health care law is altering the economic geography of the country. The poor living in the Arkansas half of town won access to a government benefit worth thousands of dollars annually, yet nothing changed for those on the Texas side of the state line." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

What is happening in Virginia? "When it comes to heaping new kinds of crazy on top of all the old kinds of crazy, there is simply nothing like the Commonwealth of Virginia. Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Democratic Virginia state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett would resign, allegedly to accept a lucrative new job as deputy director of the state tobacco commission, and to pave the way for his daughter to get a permanent judgeship. Puckett’s move flips control of the state Senate over to Republicans, who have been locked in a fight to the death with Gov. Terry McAuliffe over his push to expand Medicaid in the commonwealth. He tendered his formal resignation this morning....This afternoon he indicated that he will not be seeking the tobacco commission job after all." Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.

How Arkansas' primaries could influence the future of the state's 'private option.' "State Rep. John Burris was among the most vocal opponents of the federal health care overhaul among the Republicans in the state House. Now running for a north Arkansas state Senate seat, however, he finds himself being portrayed as a cheerleader for the law he derides as 'Obamacare.'...The spots ahead of Tuesday's primary runoff are part of an effort by opponents of Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion to make an example of Burris, one of the architects of the "private option."" Andrew DeMillo in the Associated Press.

More than 1.7 million still await Medicaid decisions. "While an unprecedented 6 million people have gained Medicaid coverage since September, mostly as a result of the Affordable Care Act, more than 1.7 million more are still waiting for their applications to be processed—with some stuck in limbo for as long as eight months, according to officials in 15 large states. The scope of the problem varies widely. California, the most populous state to implement the health law’s expansion of Medicaid, accounts for a lion’s share of the backlog with 900,000 applications still pending as of early June. The next biggest pileup is in Illinois, with 283,000 cases, while New York has no backlog at all." Phil Galewitz in Kaiser Health News and The Washington Post.

Other health care reads:

Despite federal law, treatment assistance for rape victim varies from state to state. Michelle Andrews in The Washington Post and Kaiser Health News.

Pricetag of autism exceeds $236 billion per year in the U.S., study says. Karen Kaplan in the Los Angeles Times.

Science interlude: Too bad there's no AAA on Mars, because Curiosity is having equipment problems.

Wonkblog roundup

Is bikeshare good or bad for bike shop business? Emily Badger.

Exporting U.S. natural gas isn’t as "clean" as you think. Steven Mufson.

Here’s proof that Alcoholics Anonymous is just as effective as professional psychotherapies. Kevin Humphreys.

Et Cetera

House passes NASA budget with call for manned flights to Mars. Greg Gordon in McClatchy Newspapers.

Obamas try to save the bees and butterflies. Steven T. Dennis in Roll Call.

Report: Cybercrime and espionage costs global economy $445 billion a year. Ellen Nakashima and Andrea Peterson in The Washington Post.

Court sends immigrants' adult children to the back of the line. Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

Survey: Growth to pick up, hiring steady. Christopher S. Rugaber in the Associated Press.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams and Ryan McCarthy.

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