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As we approach the 2020 Census, recent reports suggest Baltimore has made little if any gain toward then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s aggressive goal, posed in 2011, to grow the city’s population by 10,000 families in the decade that followed.

What if Baltimore addressed its persistent out migration challenge by embracing student loan debt as a common enemy to both residents and the city itself?

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During the Rawlings-Blake administration, the City and key partners sought to understand the factors that were attracting and repelling residents through a series of focus groups. For many people, relocating to the surrounding counties came down to a value proposition. They looked at their cost of living each month and determined that they would get more for their money by moving out. What the research didn’t capture, however, were other significant non-housing costs that also put pressure on monthly budgets.

In this Jan. 13, 2015 file photo, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addresses the President's Task Force on 21 Century Policing at the Newseum in Washington.
In this Jan. 13, 2015 file photo, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addresses the President's Task Force on 21 Century Policing at the Newseum in Washington. (Cliff Owen / AP)

For our purposes, let’s focus on millennials and their younger siblings, Generation Z. As a millennial, I can authoritatively speak of my generation’s two greatest burdens: avocado toast and student loan debt. One is a huge suck on our monthly budgets that seems to be getting worse each year. The other is student loan debt. But seriously, with each passing day, the money we spend on deferred education costs are dollars not being saved for down payments on homes or childcare expenses, much less long-term investments for retirement or our own children’s higher education.

Student debt has reached a crisis level in our country. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told Congress in March of last year that this $1.5 trillion debt could slow economic growth over time. Presidential candidates are proposing real solutions to combat the albatross of student debt for the first time this election cycle. To suggest, however, that this issue is one for Washington, D.C., alone is shortsighted and misses the opportunity standing right before us.

According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the average student debt held by each Maryland borrower is $27,455. However, this number does not tell the story of the thousands of people holding significantly more debt, whether because they sought advanced degrees, attended private institutions, did not fully contemplate the costs or lacked the resources to pay out of pocket. For many, the burden of student debt is inescapable.

Through a public-private campaign, Baltimore could brand itself “the best place for people with student debt.” By providing student debt refinancing, counseling and repayment benefits, government and employers could attract and retain thousands of new highly-educated professionals seeking a path to debt freedom. The draw of residents could cause a ripple of economic growth by enticing existing businesses to relocate and creating an ecosystem primed to grow even more entrepreneurs. The promise of more young families invested in Baltimore has the potential to increase the tax base, improve public schools, grow jobs and stimulate redevelopment.

FILE-In this March 30, 2013 file photo, a woman walks past blighted row houses in Baltimore. New annual estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Baltimore is continuing to shed inhabitants. Census data released Thursday, April 18, 2019 shows that Maryland's biggest city lost an estimated 7,346 citizens during the 12 months that ended July 1. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FILE-In this March 30, 2013 file photo, a woman walks past blighted row houses in Baltimore. New annual estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Baltimore is continuing to shed inhabitants. Census data released Thursday, April 18, 2019 shows that Maryland's biggest city lost an estimated 7,346 citizens during the 12 months that ended July 1. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) (Patrick Semansky/AP)

There are a variety of ways that government and employers could work together to tackle student debt. The city could offer property tax relief to employers that embrace student loan repayment benefits for employees. Employers could offer student loan counseling to their workers. The city could establish a matching credit for recipients of the state’s student loan debt relief tax credit. Public and private partners could work together to establish a student loan refinancing authority to offer more competitive rates to city residents.

These proposals are not without costs. But, by helping the next generation achieve the American dream of homeownership and a comfortable retirement, leaders would engender loyalty. Yet another benefit of this approach is that it stands to disproportionately benefit women and people of color, who borrow more, on average, for college and pay more over a longer period of time.

We may not have achieved the 10,000 family goal in this decade, but there is an opportunity to take steps today to ensure the 2030 Census tells the story of a Baltimore that is growing a diverse population of debt-free upwardly-mobile families.

Brian R. Shepter is an attorney and organizer of Debt-Free MD, a non-profit focused on raising awareness for student loan debt and developing thoughtful solutions to address the student debt crisis. He may be reached at brian.shepter@gmail.com or @mdstudentloan on Twitter.

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