Forgive health-care workers’ student debt

Thanking front-line workers has become a national pastime — a welcome one — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the best ideas for expressing that gratitude is not yet officially on the table in Canada, but it should be: forgiving the student debt of all medical workers doing battle against the virus.

If this is a war, as political leaders keep saying, these front-line workers are the soldiers, and Canada has thanked its war veterans of the past with paid education.

Instead of paying for school when the war is over, though, this time, the nation would be paying for the education that made their service so essential in fighting the pandemic.

“These health-care workers have been making sure that everybody’s safe, they’ve been putting their bodies on the line. The very least the government can do is forgive their debt,” says Sofia Descalzi, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students.

Several petitions have been circulating to get this idea off the ground in Canada and beyond in recent weeks.

In the United States, the debt-forgiveness proposal has already made its way into draft legislation by New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

Maloney declared her intention to introduce the bill a few weeks ago, also calling it “the least we can do” to recognize the sacrifice of nurses, doctors and other health-care professionals fighting the pandemic.

How much would such an idea cost in Canada?

Sorting that out isn’t easy, because student loans are handled by federal and provincial governments. But according to figures from the Canadian Federation of Students, education debt amounts to about $36 billion in this country, and more than half of it, $19 billion, is owed to the federal government.

A comprehensive Statistics Canada report on the class of 2015 showed that the average student debt ranged from roughly $15,000 for college graduates to $33,000 for those who hold doctorates.

Descalzi says it’s well known that health-care education can be the most costly, whether it’s the texts or equipment the students need to buy, or the sheer length of time it takes to become a doctor.

Sorting out who would be eligible for debt forgiveness could be complicated, but not impossible. Just the other day, Ontario Premier Doug Ford introduced a $4-an-hour pay raise for about 350,000 front-line workers, and the same criteria could be used to give them a more expansive (and expensive) thank you.

As well, many governments in Canada already provide some form of debt forgiveness for medical staff, in what’s called “return service” arrangements.

The federal government, for instance, forgives student debt for doctors and nurses who go to work in designated rural and remote communities — up to $8,000 a year for doctors and $4,000 a year for nurses and nurse practitioners.

“We’ve got the structure to put it in place,” said Armine Yalnizyan, an economist, when I asked her about the feasibility of doing this debt-forgiveness thank you to the front line of the pandemic.

Without endorsing or rejecting the idea, Yalnizyan said she presumed it could work as an expansion of the return-service provisions already offered to selected health-care workers across Canada

I like the idea because it turns all the pandemic-is-war rhetoric into something tangible for the front-line workers.

If we are hoping that a “greatest generation” will emerge from this crisis, like after the Second World War, debt forgiveness will give front-line workers the financial freedom to help fuel the spending boom we’re going to need for post-pandemic business too.

It worked in the last century: more than 50,000 Second World War vets took advantage of programs to fund their university studies, creating a whole new educated class to build postwar Canada.

University is far less affordable today, for vets or anyone else and, by most estimates, more than half of post-secondary graduates are in some kind of debt.

Relieved of what they still owe for their health-care education, our pandemic vets could be in a better position to buy houses, start families or send their own kids off to school — all the things that we want people to be doing to get the economy back on track.

Beyond that practical consideration, though, it would also be the decent thing to do. There’s been much debate in this country over the past couple of decades about how we treat our veterans.

Now we have a whole new crop of them, engaged in a war they never signed up to fight. A pay bump is nice, and so is all that noisemaking on porches and balconies, but student debt-forgiveness would be an enduring expression of gratitude.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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