Some domestic violence survivors are still paying off student loan debt from offenders
Nearly 30 years ago, federal law allowed married couples to consolidate their state student loan debt through a short-lived US Department of Education (ED) program. Couples who participated in the now-defunct program, which ran from 1993 to 2006, became jointly and severally liable for repayment. Yet today, domestic abuse survivors who participated in the program could still be on the hook for their abusers’ loans. A bill in Congress could change that.
“When people think of domestic violence, they often think of physical violence because the threats to physical safety are very real,” said Monica McLaughlin, director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), a nonprofit organization. committed to stopping domestic violence. “But one way to gain control of a survivor is through economic abuse.”
More than 14,000 borrowers participated in the ED program. But separating consolidated loans can be especially difficult for domestic violence survivors when the other borrower is their abuser. Domestic violence advocates and experts caution that consolidated debt can be a form of economic abuse. Financial abuse occurs in about 99% of domestic violence cases a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Financial Security.
“A colleague of mine would say that survivors used to show up at shelters with just their clothes on their backs, but now they show up with their clothes on their backs and crippling debt with low credit scores,” McLaughlin said. “That is often the situation. And that can destroy the rest of their lives.”
She pointed out that across the country, on average, three women are killed by a current or former intimate partner every day. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, developed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), also based on 2010 data, found that people facing home or food insecurity were more vulnerable to abuse are. McLaughlin emphasized the links between physical violence and economic precarity.
Angela Littwin, Ronald D. Krist Professor of Law at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, examines consumer debt and domestic violence with Dr. Adrienne Adams, assistant professor of ecological/community psychology at Michigan State University. She explained that economic abuse can come in two forms: financial restriction (i.e. not being allowed to work) and financial exploitation.
“Consolidated student loan conduct would fall under economic exploitation to hold you liable for debt that is not yours,” Littwin said. “Partners can do this through coercive control. And bankruptcy isn’t even an end because student loans are very difficult to repay in bankruptcy.”
But in April 2021, members of Congress introduced a bipartisan bill to help borrowers cancel federal consolidated student loans in cases of domestic violence or divorce. North Carolina Rep. David Price was one of the members of Congress to introduce the bill, known as the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act.
“The Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act was created in direct response to my constituent’s experience of a damaging Joint Consolidation Loan,” Price said in an email Diverse. “Unfortunately, borrowers nationwide remain liable for their potentially abusive or uncommunicative ex-partners’ share of their consolidated debt. Without legal relief, as in the case of my constituent, this debt can be crippling. My colleagues and I have been pleased to reintroduce this sensible, bipartisan legislation – action by Congress to address this issue is long overdue.”
If passed, the bill would allow two borrowers to submit a joint application to ED to split the consolidated loan into two separate loans. It would also allow a borrower to file a separate application if faced with domestic or economic abuse by the other borrower. Similarly, the bill would allow a borrower to submit an application when the person cannot reasonably reach or access the other borrower’s credit information.
“There aren’t many people who have participated in this program, but this illustrates what is happening in so many other areas of the economy for domestic violence survivors,” McLaughlin said. “You’re thinking about how you’re intertwining your life with someone else’s life in an intimate relationship, and detaching from that is very challenging.”
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected]