In a famous tale from Greek mythology, a man named Sisyphus is punished by Hades, god of the underworld, by having to push a large boulder up a hill. The catch is that the boulder rolls back down each time Sisyphus gets it to the top of the hill, and he is doomed to start his chore all over again – for eternity. In our time, the myth gives rise to the phrase “Sisyphean task,” meant to denote an effort that is difficult and futile.
It appears as though lawmakers in 19 states have taken cues from the Greek myth. In each of these states, missing a student loan payment can result in revocation of driver’s or professional licenses as a means of punishing the offender. Put simply, if you are one of the nearly 44 million borrowers in the second highest consumer debt category in the United States, not paying your loans could make you ineligible to work. If you are ineligible to work, you will be hard-pressed to earn the income needed to pay the loans you struggled with in the first place.
This is the ultimate example of a Sisyphean task, especially when considering the fact that nearly 30 percent of workers in the United States need a license to legally perform their occupation. By forcing people back to the beginning of their job search, it is no wonder that this self-defeating mechanism for punishing loan defaulters is beginning to find itself under intense scrutiny.
Thankfully, the unlikely partnership of Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has produced a viable solution for this situation. Earlier in the summer, both senators introduced a bill—the Protecting Job Opportunities for Borrowers (JOBs) Act—that would prevent states from denying, suspending, or revoking driver’s or professional licenses if a borrower defaults on his or her loan. The bill would give states two years to come into compliance.
Sen. Rubio has strong personal experience with student loan debt, having owed over $100,000 in loans as recently as 2011. He even noted that he was wrong to have previously supported laws stripping professional licenses from student loan defaulters, making the point “How can [defaulters] pay back if they can’t work?”
None of this is to say the Protecting JOBs Act completely erases responsibility on the part of borrowers to pay back the loans they have taken. Paying one’s debts is an important lesson in personal accountability, and the bill does not interfere with other modes of recourse faced by loan defaulters. It does, however, make the figurative boulder of debt recent graduates are pushing less likely to roll back down the hill and force them to start all over again.
In order to, in Sen. Rubio’s words, “ensure that borrowers are able to continue working to pay off their loans,” the Protecting JOBs Act preserves the most likely tool that allows borrowers to catch up on missed payments and honor their debts.
The dust-up over student loans and license revocations also raises the question of why there are so many jobs that require licensing to begin with, and it would be shortsighted not to point out that the overabundance of occupational licensing regulations adds to the difficulty for recent graduates to make an honest income. The Protecting JOBs Act serves as a good starting place to responsibly tackle a problem arising from the intersection of two wide-ranging public policy issues, student debt and occupational licensing.
There are endless government regulations or political statements that can be described as Sisyphean tasks, but laws punishing student loan borrowers by suspending or revoking an occupational license has to be one of the best recent examples of this parable in action. We should encourage borrowers to honor their debts, but going after a borrower’s means of paying those debts presents various opportunities to craft better ways to teach that lesson.
The Protecting JOBs Act is not a cure-all for the multitude of challenges facing occupational licensing and student loan policies. But this common-sense proposal to end the Sisyphean nightmare for many Americans ought to be supported.