ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This column was originally published in Not Shutting Up, a newsletter about the issues facing journalism and democracy. Sign up for it here.
More than a decade ago, a young reporter named Sasha Chavkin filed a story for ProPublica about the sort of bureaucratic indifference that makes people hate their government. Across the country, thousands of people who had suffered grievous injuries that prevented them from working were being hounded for student loans they had no chance of repaying. Many had been classified as disabled by the Social Security Administration and were already receiving government support. But the Department of Education, which handles loan forgiveness, insisted that borrowers jump through a separate set of hoops to prove they were unable to work. In some cases, the department was garnishing Social Security payments sent to people with disabilities who were in arrears on their loans.
We published Sasha’s story on Feb. 13, 2011. It introduced readers to Tina Brooks, a former police officer who fractured a vertebra in her back and damaged three others in her neck when she plunged 15 feet down a steep quarry while training for bicycle patrol. Although five doctors and a judge from Social Security all agreed that she was fully disabled, Education Department officials continued to insist she pay off $43,000 in loans.
It was one of those stories where each paragraph makes you madder.
“I’m a cop, and I know how to fill out paperwork,” Brooks told Sasha. “But when you’re trying to comply with people and they’re not telling you the rules, I might as well beat my head on the wall.”
ProPublica is unusual among news organizations in that we measure our success by the tangible impact our stories achieve. As editors and reporters, we are trained to try to make every story well-written, fair, solidly documented and maybe even prizeworthy. But Herb and Marion Sandler, the founders of ProPublica, said from the very beginning that they had a higher goal for ProPublica: that our stories should make a difference.
It’s a tough target to hit. Journalists, myself included, are notoriously poor at forecasting which stories will spur change. Sometimes, we reveal utterly outrageous abuses and the reaction is muted. Other times, people explode with anger and change comes overnight. New reporters hired from other organizations frequently ask: What’s a ProPublica story? My answer is that readers should finish one of our investigative articles with a clear understanding of what’s gone wrong and to whom they should send a blistering letter (or email) demanding immediate action.
I expected our 2011 story on disabilities and student loans to prompt swift action. Congress had already demanded that the Department of Education improve its handling of disability cases. An internal audit, which we obtained, had found that the department was failing to follow its own rules. It seemed like a political no-brainer to intervene, both for members of Congress and for the Obama administration. They stood to earn kudos for adopting an approach that is both required by law and a gesture of human decency.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, little of that happened. The Education Department made some modest improvements but continued to insist that people fill out applications for relief. The process remained cumbersome, and the burden remained on the disabled person to prove they were entitled to relief. Few loans were forgiven.
It was only last month that the department announced that it was enacting a new policy in which people deemed severely disabled by the SSA would automatically have their loans forgiven. The technique? A simple computer search that would match the names of people receiving disability payments with names of student loan borrowers. Officials said they would be writing off a staggering $5.8 billion in loans. Clearly, the existing procedures had not worked for the vast majority of disabled borrowers.
I asked Sasha what finally made the difference. His answer, not surprisingly, was politics. The left wing of the Democratic Party, notably Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have been pressuring the Biden administration to launch a broad program of relief for 43 million Americans who owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loans. President Joe Biden has never endorsed that idea. But as Sasha points out “this fix for disabled borrowers was something no one could reasonably oppose.” The no-brainer solution, he said, was always out there, but it “took a long time and a lot of unnecessary hardship” before it was politically beneficial to the people with the power to impose change.
It’s worth noting that this story is not yet over. The Department of Education continues to withhold debt relief from a substantial number of student loan borrowers who receive federal disability payments — people whose disabilities the SSA views as serious but that it believes have some chance of easing in the future.
Remarkably, one of the people we interviewed back in 2011, a carpenter and draftsman who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is among those who remain on the hook for his student loans. He has tried to return to work several times since 2011, but his medical problems made that impossible. SSA officials argue that his lung disease might someday improve enough to allow him to work.
“There’s no improving COPD,” the carpenter, Scott Creighton, said in our recent story. “Since I spoke to you last time I’ve had one pulmonary embolism and I’ve had one heart attack.”
Some have argued in recent years that we live in a post-shame era, that spotlighting outrageous wrongdoing no longer brings results. For those who feel that is true, I suggest you visit the page on which we list stories that have had an impact. I hope you’ll find it inspiring. I do.