With Congress inert, one state has stepped forward with an idea. The same day federal student loans doubled last week, Oregon’s legislature unanimously passed HB3472, or the “Pay it Forward” debt-free higher education plan. Once the bill is fully implemented—a process that will require votes from the legislature and the public over several years—Oregon high school graduates will be able to attend public colleges or universities in the state for free, and have a small percentage of their future income taken into a fund to pay for the next generation. It’s almost an inverse of Social Security: Instead of paying to ensure a measure of dignity in retirement at the end of life, Oregonians will pay to ensure an investment in student learning at the beginning. [...]
While students analyzed the student debt crisis, Dudley cast around for possible solutions. The process brought her to the Pay It Forward plan, the brainchild of John Burbank of the Economic Opportunity Institute (a Seattle-based liberal policy shop). Under Burbank’s plan, students would matriculate at public colleges and universities for free, and pay 3 percent of their future earnings for around 20 years into a fund to pay for successive students. Community college students would only have to pay 1.5 percent. The payments would come out as a pre-tax payroll deduction, and the more money graduates make over time, the more they would pay.
I think the idea has real merit in our current political climate, but it is also a reminder of how completely conservatives have managed to pull the debate on government financing rightward.
This proposal is very similar to a crazy idea that America used in the long ago called an “income tax.” It used to be that when people were younger they benefited greatly from a whole spectrum of government programs such as public education, infrastructure spending, fire protection, food safety etc… Once they got older people would paid forward these benefits to the next generation by having part of their salary go to an income tax. It helped created one of the most prosperous middle classes in history.
Modern conservatives have made it so difficult to even conceive of increasing “taxes” for worthy public investments that progressives have to resort to recreating the wheel to restore the basic dynamic.
Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen under Creative Commons license