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Does Student Loan Forgiveness Drive Disability Application?

Philip Armour, Melanie A. Zaber

NBER Working Paper No. 26787
Issued in February 2020
NBER Program(s):Public Economics

Student loan debt in the US exceeds $1.3 trillion, and unlike credit card and medical debt, typically cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Moreover, this debt has been increasing: the share of borrowers leaving school with more than $50,000 of federal student debt increased from 2 percent in 1992 to 17 percent in 2014. However, federal student loan debt discharge is available for disabled individuals through the Department of Education's Total and Permanent Disability Discharge (TPDD) mechanism through certification of a total and permanent disability. In July 2013, the TPDD expanded to include receipt of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as an eligible category for discharge, provided medical improvement was not expected. Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) matched to SSI and SSDI applications, we find that SSDI and SSI application rates increased among respondents with student loans relative to rates among those without student loans. Our estimates suggest the policy change raised the probability of applying for SSDI or SSI in a given quarter among student loan-holders by 50% (baseline rate per quarter is approximately 0.3%), generally increasing SSI and SSDI awards. However, these induced award recipients were unlikely to receive the disability designation necessary to obtain student loan discharge. Given that the geographic distributions of student loan indebtedness and historical SSDI/SSI program participation differ, there are strong implications for both the size and location of SSDI and SSI beneficiaries. Furthermore, these findings highlight the importance of learning from policy changes in programs that interact with SSDI and SSI to better understand the drivers of disability program participation.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w26787

 
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