Which types of debt do Americans want the government to provide relief for?

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
September 08, 2022, 5:03 PM GMT+0

Joe Biden's recent decision that his government would cancel some student loans has sparked a debate over which types of debt, if any, the federal government should provide relief for. A recent YouGov poll finds that while Americans are largely supportive of providing relief for student debt, they are more likely to support relief for medical debt. Fewer favor forgiving business loans, including Paycheck Protection (PPP) loans disbursed during the pandemic.

Of the eight types of debt asked about, Americans are most likely to support relief for medical debt: 66% favor providing some relief for people with medical debt while 23% oppose doing so. Half of Americans support relief for undergraduate student-loan debt (50%) and nearly as many do for graduate student-loan debt (48%). For both of these forms of relief, more support than oppose them. Americans are more likely to oppose than to support relief for each of the five other forms of debt asked about: mortgage debt (41% support), PPP debt (35%), business debt (34%), credit-card debt (32%), and auto-loan debt (29%).

If the government can't provide relief for all, which one type of debt do Americans think should be prioritized? We asked people who said they supported at least one form of relief to pick from among the ones they support, one they think should be prioritized most. By far, the most likely to be selected is medical debt, named as the top priority by 52% of Americans who support any debt relief. The next most likely to be prioritized is undergraduate student-loan debt (17%), followed by a tie between mortgage debt (7%) and graduate student-loan debt (7%).

As with most political issues, views on debt are deeply divided by political party, with Democrats far more likely than Republicans to support the cancellation of each of the eight types of debt polled about. With the exception of medical debt, which a majority of Republicans support relief for (56%), fewer than one in three Republicans favor forgiving each of the other seven forms of debt asked about. At least half of Democrats are in favor of providing some relief for each of medical debt, student debt, mortgage debt, and PPP debt.

One way that people who have debt they won't be able to pay back can find relief is through bankruptcy proceedings, which help to renegotiate debt obligations. Student-loan debt is one of several types of debt that can’t usually be discharged in bankruptcy. In light of Biden's recent student-debt cancellation plan, some senators have renewed calls for changes to bankruptcy law that would provide relief to student borrowers. To understand how Americans feel about the issue, we first tested whether people are aware of the types of debt from which people are currently eligible to seek relief by filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Many people (39%) say they aren't sure about which types are eligible, but those who do respond show some awareness that student debts can't be renegotiated through bankruptcy, unlike other types of debt asked about.

Which types of debt are Americans most likely to say should be allowed to be canceled through bankruptcy proceedings? Medical debt (57%), followed by credit-card debt (41%) and undergraduate student debt (33%). Few say business debt (26%) or, more specifically, PPP debt (13%) should be eligible for discharge through bankruptcy.

We also asked Americans about their own experiences with debt, both throughout their lives and today:

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See crosstabs and toplines for this poll.

Methodology: This U.S. News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online from August 29 - September 5, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as 2016 and 2020 Presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens.

Image: Adobe Stock (F)

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