(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: (Bifocal, Vol. 37, Issue 1).)
Each year, public service employers report difficulty in recruiting and retaining talented staff, leaving many Americans without critically needed services. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, despite steady growth in private sector employment figures, there are still 500,000 fewer public sector positions than before the recession, and the U.S. population relying on such services has grown.
The public sector includes a broad range of occupations, including first responders, teachers, health professionals, and lawyers. For example, prosecutors and public defenders promote public safety and the administration of justice. Legal aid lawyers and others at nonprofits help low-income elderly, veterans, and families remain stably housed, employed, and receiving due benefits and services, whether they live in urban or rural communities, including on tribal lands.
The reasons for the difficulty in recruiting and retaining these professionals can be complex, but the greatest common obstacle in the legal community has been the substantial student debt that borrowers incur to pursue a law degree. In 2014, the average law student graduating from a private law school accumulated $122,000 in student loan debt, and the average public law school graduate had accumulated $84,000. This does not include an average of $30,000 in student debt for undergraduate studies. By contrast, according to a 2014 survey by the National Association for Law Placement, the starting salary for a legal aid lawyers was $44,600, and for prosecutors and public defenders, starting salaries for each were approximately $50,000.
In 2007, Congress bolstered the public sector by creating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF). Under PSLF, those who make 120 monthly payments on their loans while employed full-time in public service jobs are eligible to have their remaining balance forgiven. When coupled with income-driven repayment plans that tie monthly repayment obligations to a percentage of actual income, PSLF provides a critical tool for employers to fill necessary positions with motivated persons who make a lasting commitment.
Congress, however, has recently enrolled a budget resolution for FY2016 that calls for the repeal of PSLF. This proposal comes without hard data or any assessment of the projected impact that repeal would have on an already-lagging public sector. Repeal would return the country to where we were prior to 2007—circumstances sufficiently challenging as to warrant the creation of PSLF.
The American Bar Association urges Congress to preserve the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
- Repeal of PSLF will undermine a vital source of support to state and local communities and leave many American people vulnerable at times of crisis.
- PSLF helps fill laudable public service jobs in every state and territory amid lagging employment in the public sector and increasing public need.
- Restricting or eliminating PSLF will harm rural, tribal or other under-resourced communities where recruitment and retention are the most difficult.
The Governmental Affairs Office works closely with ABA member entities to communicate the views of the Association to numerous governmental entities on a broad range of issues of concern to policy makers and the legal profession. ■