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Student debt not only for the young

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Student loan debt dogs not just young people, but an increasing number of retirees. Some 700,000 Americans on Social Security are still paying on student loans, and last year the government garnished a portion of disability and retirement payments due nearly 160,000 people with education debt.

The statistics show that the student-loan problem transcends generational lines and that any solution must include some measure of forgiveness for seniors of limited means.

With $1.2 trillion in such debt hanging over the country, the student loan total has surpassed credit-card debt, which hovers at $703 billion. Two-thirds of student-loan debt is owed by people under the age of 40, but $18.2 billion of it is owed by those 65 or older, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Some seniors are in this position, not because they were fiscally irresponsible but because of medical calamity. Medical bills are blamed for more than 60 percent of personal bankruptcies. Unlike other forms of debt, however, student loans cannot be absolved by bankruptcy; balances chase borrowers to the grave.

Federal loans are discharged upon death, but that’s small consolation to those who watch balances rise and interest accrue even when they become unable to work. In one particularly outrageous case, the government is garnishing a portion of the Social Security check of an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease.

Proposals put forth by President Barack Obama and assorted presidential candidates vary in their calls for loan forgiveness. The federal government has $18 trillion of debt all its own and can’t afford to pay everyone’s past-due tuition — nor should it. But to dun the elderly, particularly those with limited means or severe health impairments, is unduly harsh public policy. Old age has enough insults all its own; student-loan debt shouldn’t be one of them.

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