As rising coronavirus cases and the derailing of the Build Back Better bill dampened holiday cheer, the Biden administration made an announcement last week that inspired some hope for the new year. After sustained public pressure, it extended until May the moratorium on student loan repayments that was scheduled to end in January. With 89 percent of borrowers reporting that they are not “financially secure” enough to resume payments in the immediate future, the extension will provide vital relief.

But the move also raises the question: Why restart payments at all?

Though many of the administration’s solutions to social, environmental and health crises must be filtered through our gridlocked Congress, student debt is different. The Higher Education Act gives the administration broad authority to end the crisis — without Biden having to have Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to dinner even once.

Biden should act now. Not just because the country desperately needs relief — and Biden just as desperately needs a political win — but because canceling student debt is as strategically smart as it is morally urgent.

Today, nearly 1 out of every 6 American adults — 43 million people — have outstanding federal student loans, adding up to $1.73 trillion in debt. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a longtime advocate for canceling this debt, explains: “I spent my career studying why so many hard-working middle-class families were going broke. I discovered that they weren’t reckless or irresponsible — they were being squeezed by an economy that forced them to take on more debt to cling to their place in America’s middle class.” Student debt is Exhibit A.

Students took out loans, Warren says, “on the promise that a college education would justify their debt and provide a ticket to the middle class.” But for millions of Americans, that has turned out to be untrue. Every year, about 1 million people default on their education loans.

The burden isn’t limited to finances: A 2021 survey found that 1 in 14 people had suicidal thoughts because of student debt. And people of color often bear a larger burden: On average, Black borrowers owe $25,000 more in student debt than White borrowers.

Early this year, Warren, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) led a resolution urging the president to cancel up to $50,000 of federal student loan debt, which would help 36 million Americans become debt-free.

Rather than inject a one-off stimulus into the economy, as some critics have charged, cancellation would likely prompt Americans to reevaluate their long-term spending plans and invest in a better future. It could give millions a chance to finally buy a house or start their business or help their kids get an education, too — investments that are good both for families and the overall economy. And the policy would help narrow the wealth gap between those of different races: One think tank’s study found that canceling up to $50,000 in student debt per person would immediately increase Black wealth by 40 percent.

Biden appears to be at least partially on board: On the campaign trail, he promised to cancel a minimum of $10,000 in student debt. So why hasn’t he done it?

One stated reason is that he’s waiting for Congress. Which is an absurd proposition: After Congress has obstructed numerous Biden campaign promises, he is now inviting lawmakers to obstruct yet another such promise? It’s like the fable of the scorpion and the frog: Biden knows that relying on members of Congress is a surefire way to get stung. Yet he keeps getting duped into crossing the river with them.

Given the downturn in Biden’s approval rating, canceling student debt would be an opportunity to, as historian David Walsh put it, “staunch the bleeding of his political base” and simultaneously capitalize on huge grass-roots momentum. Groups such as Debt Collective, the Student Borrower Protection Center and others have been organizing toward this end for years. Taking this step would be a much-needed victory that could stoke enthusiasm for Democrats heading into the midterm elections.

With so much of his agenda in jeopardy, Biden should help Americans in the ways he can right now: by building on grass-roots energy, making good on his word and giving tens of millions of people greater ability to invest in their futures.

Executive actions speak louder than words. This is Biden’s moment to go beyond talk about a more equitable future and start building it.