The Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness program has been the subject of a number of controversies. Much of the debate centers on who should be included in the program, and who should be left out.
One group speaking out about being excluded is the National Young Farmers Coalition. According to group’s the national field director, Sophie Ackoff, “We’re seeing farmers leaving the industry to get more stable income in order to pay their student loan debt, it’s at a time when we need farmers more than ever.”
Data from the US Department of Agriculture would seem to back the Young Farmer’s claim. In 2012, the average age of a farmer in the US was 58. Of the over two million farmers in the United States, only 6% are under the age of 35.
It is also fairly obvious that the nation needs to be fed and farmers are instrumental in serving that important public need.
Where things get complicated on this issue is that farming cannot simply be added to a list of occupations eligible for public service student loan forgiveness. That is because there is not a list of eligible occupations.
Instead, the government defines public service by who you work for, rather than what you do. If you work for a non-profit or for the government, your work is public service. If you are working for-profit, then your work will not be eligible for the program.
As an example, take two emergency room nurses. Both do the same job, work the same hours, earn the same paycheck, and perform the same service to the public. However, one nurse works at a for-profit hospital while the other works at a non-profit hospital. This slight distinction makes all the difference in the eyes of the law. One nurse qualifies for public service forgiveness, while the other does not.
Farmers are not running 501(c)(3) charities, nor are they working for the government. As a result, they don’t qualify for public service forgiveness.
It’s not what you do; it’s who you do it for
The issues raised by farmers, and seen in the nurse example, the current definition of public service seems to be lacking. However, there are major policy reasons behind the current system. For starters, it draws a clear bright line and makes deciding who qualifies very easy. There is an employer certification form and it is easy for loan administrators to review. If we start awarding forgiveness based upon the type of work done, things quickly get very complicated. All of the sudden, the job description matters. It also introduces the debate about what work benefits the public vs. the work that does not benefit the public. This varies not only by profession, but on a job to job basis.
To avoid potential issues and confusion, the government simply defines public service as work done for the government or for a non-profit.
Help for Farmers
The current system leaves farmers on the outside looking in and forces them to ask the government not just to add them to a list of jobs that qualify, but to dramatically alter the way the public service program is administered.
Even though the administrative problems behind getting farmers in the public service program might seem complicated; dealing with a food shortage would be a much bigger and far more difficult problem.