Student Loan Debt Continues to Drag Down Economy…Washington Does Nothing

President Obama is in the White House in large part because young adults put him there. They were the volunteer force that knocked on doors and made phone calls in the run up to the election. They were the age group that voted so overwhelmingly for Obama that it outweighed the support other cohorts were throwing Romney’s way. And yet for all their trouble, the man they chose to be president has systematically ignored their concerns at nearly every turn.

The economy continues to slog through the slowest recovery in recent history. Obamacare is pushing the health costs of young adults through the roof. And nothing is being done to address the soaring cost of college and the attendant boom in student loan debt.

It is the student loan issue that may pose the largest long-term threat to the wellbeing, not only of young adults, but for the nation as a whole. According to the latest survey conducted by the Institute for College Access and Success, which takes an annual look at the cumulative loan debt of college graduates, both the number of students with loans and the size of their debt is rapidly increasing.

“Seven in 10 college seniors who graduated in 2012 had student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 with those loans,” write study authors Matthew Reed and Debbie Cochrane. “The national share of seniors graduating with loans rose in recent years, from 68 percent in 2008 to 71 percent in 2012, while their debt at graduation increased by an average of six percent per year.”

And that debt comes with a price. Higher debt levels make for higher monthly payments, which become ever-harder to meet in a depressed economy with stagnant wage growth. As a result, student loan defaults and delinquencies continue to rise, even as rates for other consumer credits like mortgages, credit cards and auto debts decline. Sam Frizell reports for TIME:

Debt is painful for many students, and an increasing number of graduates are unable to pay back their loans on time. Delinquencies on student loans have risen dramatically over the past decade: 11.5 percent of graduates were at least 90 days late on paying back their loans at the end of 2013, compared with 6.2 percent delinquencies on student loans in 2003. Moreover, the Fed’s figures on delinquencies hide more stark data: nearly half of all students with debt aren’t currently in repayment thanks to deferments and forbearances and the fact that students are not expected to pay while they’re in school, according to van der Klaauw. What that means is that for the graduates who are actually expected to pay their loans now, the delinquency rate is roughly double the 11.5% figure.

Delinquencies can drag down the credit score of young adults and hurt their ability to apply for loans for houses and cars. This, in turn, is keeping down economic growth.

“The fact is that the student laon burden is climbing pretty sharply, and the fact is that it cannot be discharged,” New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley told reporters in November. “People can have trouble with the student loan debt burden—unable to buy cars, unable to buy homes—and it can really delay the cycle.”

But it’s not just the big purchases that aren’t being made. As one borrower tells TIME, “It’s the little things. Putting off a haircut for a long time, getting more makeup, prescriptions, or doctors appointments, the things that I don’t even think cost money but end up adding up a lot.”

That’s a lot of money that is being sucked out of the economy and yet we’ve hardly heard a word about it from Washington. It’s not hard to identify the problem—the annual cost of a degree soared 70 percent in the decade spanning 2001 to 2011—from $10,820 to $18,497 and yet the president is doing little about it. And for a president who owes his success to the enthusiasm and loyalty of young adults, that’s more than just a slap in the face, it’s a historic let down.