Rep. Finkenauer Targets Student Loan Relief to Revitalize Rural Areas

December 8, 2020 by Sean Trambley

WASHINGTON – This week, Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, introduced the Rural Revitalization Now Act to provide up to $50,000 in student loan relief for people who commit to live and work in rural communities for at least eight years.

The Rural Revitalization Now Act creates a program that would provide borrowers with student debt relief on their federal or private student loans if they live in a rural area, a small or mid-sized community that is losing population, or a community that has been affected by a major disaster. 

The program would allow states, counties, localities, territories, Tribes, non-profit entities, and qualifying partnerships to sponsor borrowers, in conjunction with the federal government, by providing student debt relief of up to $50,000 over eight years. 

Those sponsors would generally split the cost of debt forgiveness with the federal government, although the program is flexible and allows sponsors to bear less of the cost if needed. 

“Rural depopulation has been a fact of life in Iowa and across the country for decades — diminishing economic opportunity and undermining quality of life. It’s heartbreaking to see, but it doesn’t have to be this way,” Finkenauer said. “The Rural Revitalization Now Act will allow young professionals to move back home, create new opportunities and find a real sense of community — while also relieving their student loan debt and building on their future.”

According to a 2019 Des Moines Register article citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 69 of Iowa’s 99 counties had population declines from April 2010 to July 2018. 

The areas that saw population gains were limited mostly to metropolitan cities such as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Ames, Iowa City and Dubuque. Other urban cities with more limited growth are Sioux City, Council Bluffs and Waterloo.

In the 10 years since the Great Recession, Iowa’s overall population has grown to an estimated 3,156,145 people. In 2010, Iowa’s total population was approximately 3,050,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

To be eligible for student loan relief under the Rural Revitalization Now Act, a borrower must live in a qualifying area that meets certain requirements both individually and considered collectively with any other city or town that is adjacent to or closely associated with it. 

The bill has been endorsed by the National Education Association and the Jackson County Economic Alliance.

“This bill could be a great tool for rural communities to really incentivize resident attraction and retention efforts. As we seek to create strategies to sustain our cities and counties, investing in our people is at the top of the list. This bill will help make that happen. The Jackson County Economic Alliance is strongly supportive of Representative Finkenauer’s Rural Revitalization Now Act,” said Nic Hockenberry, director of the Jackson County Economic Alliance.

To be a qualifying area, a city or town must have: 

  • Less than 20,000 people
  • Less than 100,000 people and have lost population over the last 10 years
  • Less than 150,000 people and have lost population over the last 10 years provided that the area receives recognition/approval by Departments of Commerce and Education based on potential economic benefit for the area.
  • Less than 300,000 people and have been included in a major disaster area within the last five years provided that the program receives recognition by the federal government as economically benefiting the area or supporting community recovery.

While Finkenauer lost her bid for reelection last month, the bill is cosponsored by Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., who has committed to reintroduce the legislation in 117th Congress, ensuring continued consideration in the months ahead.

“Upstate New York is home to some of the best colleges in the world, but our towns and villages continue to see students move to metropolitan areas after graduation rather than build their lives in rural communities. A key component of that is the overly-burdensome student debt that forces young people to look for work elsewhere,” said Delgado. “Today, I’m introducing legislation focused on attracting and retaining young people in rural communities by providing student loan relief to those who work and live in rural areas experiencing population loss. The Rural Revitalization Now Act will help ease the burden of student loan debt and encourage folks to settle down, find employment, and raise a family here in the upstate.”

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