According to Exodus, when Israelite slaves angered Pharaoh, he responded by demanding that they produce mud bricks without his Egyptian straw. But bricks made entirely of mud would merely crumble into dust. And without usable building supplies, Egyptian construction would screech to a halt. Thus, while Pharaoh intended to punish the Israelites, his decree would also harm Egyptians at large. It was a thoroughly imprudent policy.
So, what does this have to do with Massachusetts? More than you might think.
Today, nearly 30 percent of all professionals must obtain an occupational license to work in the United States. Oddly enough, in Massachusetts, these requirements even extend to funeral attendants, shampooers and fortunetellers. The hurdles that workers must clear to obtain these licenses are considerable, too. In fact, the Bay State has the 10th-most burdensome occupational licensing laws in the country.
If this wasn’t bad enough, Massachusetts is also one of a minority of states that reserves the legal authority to strip professionals of their licenses — and therefore their jobs — if they fall behind on their student loans. This policy, like Pharaoh’s, expects the impossible, is fraught with pitfalls and risks harming the population as a whole.
The genesis of such statutes can be traced to the late 1980′s and early 1990′s, when the federal government suggested that states enact these laws to encourage debt repayment. The policy, however, predictably failed at its goal and has had many undesirable side effects. In response, states have been repealing this power in recent years, and Massachusetts may be the next domino to fall. Rep. Higgins, D-Leominster, has recognized the folly of this authority, and while she isn’t exactly Moses crying “Let my people go!” she has decided to address the problem legislatively. She recently introduced H.3620, which would abolish the state’s ability to suspend the licenses of those in default on their student loans.
As of 2015, almost 6,500 Bay Staters were in default on these loans. And under the current policy, if government officials wished, they could deprive all licensed defaulters of their ability to work in one fell swoop. This would wreak havoc on borrowers’ lives, not to mention the state economy.
What’s more, the rationale behind this law is misguided. After all, how can someone repay their student loans if the government suspends their professional license, thereby stripping them of their means to earn a living? It can be virtually impossible for a borrower to enter into satisfactory repayment status without a job. In this way, the law works against its purported objective of guaranteeing debt collection. If Massachusetts executed its statute, it would be, like Pharaoh, demanding the impossible.
And like Pharaoh’s mandate, this policy can have dreadful effects that reverberate beyond just borrowers. When defaulters become jobless, their families also suffer, which has been the case in other states that have similar policies. The consequence of this government created-unemployment is that borrowers are more likely to seek state-funded assistance to keep roofs over their families’ heads and their pantries stocked with food. This ultimately becomes a drag on dutiful taxpayers. Alternatively, the defaulters might accumulate large amounts of credit card debt to make ends meet, further perpetuating their debt cycle. Either way, such license suspensions are unnecessary given that other, less pernicious debt-collection methods exist.
While previous administrations haven’t used this authority extensively, an incoming one could — which highlights the importance of Rep. Higgins’ legislation. To prevent this from coming to fruition, the Legislature should repeal this authority entirely. If the Legislature fails to do this, the law could ultimately devastate lives and hurt the economy. And while it probably won’t result in Massachusetts bearing the brunt of biblical plagues, why risk it?
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