U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, speaks to the Rotary Club of Bangor at their weekly Tuesday meeting at the Richard Dyke Center for Family Business at Husson University on Aug. 16, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District emerged as one of the few Democrats to criticize President Joe Biden’s decision to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for millions of Americans on Wednesday, calling it “out of touch.”

“This decision by the president is out of touch with what the majority of the American people want from the White House, which is leadership to address the most immediate challenges the country is facing,” Golden said.

Golden’s announcement comes amid what is expected to be a tight re-election campaign against former Rep. Bruce Poliquin in perhaps the most conservative Democratic-held House district in the country. While he recently voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature tax, health care and climate bill, he has often broken with party leaders on high-profile bills.

The debt relief will forgive $10,000 in student debt for Americans making under $125,000 a year and will undoubtedly affect a number of Mainers paying off their loans after attending college.

Golden’s statement echoes the view of many Republicans who said the action would worsen inflation. The GOP has also focused on how the decision would use taxpayer dollars to help Americans who go to college to the detriment of the majority who do not.

Those who attended college on Pell Grants will get $20,000 in relief, while the plan would also halve the amount of income that borrowers must pay monthly from 10 percent to 5 percent.

It will cost more than a blanket $10,000 forgiveness plan for those making less than $125,000 annually, which was also considered by Biden and was estimated at $300 billion by a group of economists at the University of Pennsylvania.

The decision will potentially make inflationary pressures worse during a time in which the president should be taking actions to reduce inflation, Golden said.

“It is out of step with the needs and values of working-class Americans, and I do not support the president’s decision,” Golden said.

Poliquin and Sen. Susan Collins, another Republican, said the decision was unfair to those who did not take out college loans. The former congressman also said the move was legally dubious, while he supported other efforts to make college affordable, including expanding 529 college savings plans.

“Working Mainers who are paying for home mortgages, car loans and increased costs of home heating and groceries should not have their taxes taken to pay for loans they didn’t take out,” Poliquin said.

Independent 2nd District hopeful Tiffany Bond criticized Golden’s comments on the move, saying that helping numerous Mainers trying to pay for college was not “out of touch,” although the move would not fix the systemic problem of student loan debt.

“Frankly, it’s tone deaf of Golden to have no empathy for those who have wanted the same chance at a college education he has had,” she said.

A spokesperson for Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said the senator recognized the value of the move, but felt that the rising cost of college needed to be addressed “more directly and sustainably.”

Golden’s Democratic colleague, Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District, applauded the announcement, saying it was an important step to alleviate an American student debt problem that she said had become a crisis.

Biden said Wednesday afternoon that he had made the decision because an “entire generation” had been saddled with significant debt from student loans.

“The burden is so heavy that even if you graduate, you may not have access to the middle class life that the college degree once provided,” he said.

The Institute for College Access & Success estimated that Mainers in the class of 2020 had an average debt of around $33,000, the ninth-highest rate in the nation. New college graduates in Maine have typically had some of the highest student debt loads in the country, a quality shared with several other Northeastern states. Neighboring New Hampshire had the highest rate in 2020 with an average of around $40,000.

In Golden’s district, 56 percent of people 25 or over have spent at least some time in college compared with 62 percent nationally, according to 2020 census data. Around one-fourth have a bachelor’s degree or higher in the district compared to one-third nationally.