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Congress Passes Bill to Free Domestic Violence Survivors From Their Abusers’ Student Debt

A 1990s federal program allowed couples to consolidate debt. As a result, some victims have been financially tied to their abusers for years.

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Last month, President Biden announced his administration would forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for some borrowers—an important step toward addressing the nearly $1.75 trillion national student debt crisis. But many borrowers, like domestic violence survivors, wouldn’t be able to experience the full benefits of this policy, as some still remain tied to the student debt of abusive partners and exes. To that end, on Wednesday—despite some Republican efforts to further stall the bill with an unnecessary amendment—the House finally passed a bill that will allow survivors to escape debts incurred by abusive exes, with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats in voting to pass it.

Democrats’ Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act will allow borrowers to split their joint consolidation loans, giving them a new path toward debt relief. The bill also ensures they’re eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, as well as President Biden’s debt forgiveness program.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who first introduced the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act in 2017, told NPR in February that one of his constituents told him she’s been on the hook for paying her abusive ex-husband’s student loans for years, and her ex has refused to pay his part. “While she physically got away, she couldn’t get away from this mutual debt from an abusive husband,” Warner said. “That’s just wrong.”

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The need for the bill can be traced to a 1990s federal program that allowed married couples to consolidate their student loans to pay a lower interest rate. But once their loans were merged, couples were given no means to separate them—even if they were divorced and even in cases of domestic violence. Congress eliminated the program in 2006, but for years, there hasn’t been a system to help the estimated 15,000 borrowers who merged their loans. Through the ‘90s program, some victims have been tied to their abusers for years after leaving them. And if their abusers refuse to pay their part of the consolidated loans, victims foot the bill.

Financial abuse is a highly common form of domestic abuse. Acts of economic sabotage—for example, deliberately tanking a partner’s credit score or taking out massive loans in a partner’s name—are among the top tactics used in abusive relationships, as this can lead to victims being economically reliant on their abusers. Being entrapped in massive debt often means being entrapped in long-term abusive relationships. Notably, many people with student debt never even graduated or obtained the degree for which they took out massive loans. Student survivors may be overrepresented in this group—an estimated 34 percent of campus sexual assault survivors are forced to drop out of school. With significant debt and without degrees, they are essentially set up for failure.

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Despite passing the Senate relatively easily via unanimous consent, the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act faced some opposition from Republicans while in the House Rules Committee on Monday. Republican members said it lacked specifics on how debt would be distributed to the individual parties if the loans were separated and the bill needed an amendment; nonetheless, it passed out of committee by a 7-3 vote without an amendment. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said the proposed amendment could have tanked the bill altogether: “If we amend it, and possibly even make it worse, it goes over to the Senate and who knows what happens, if the clock ever starts or if we see the bill again.”

In a statement he shared when the bill passed the Senate in June, Warner recalled a single mom named Sara, who “faced the threat of having her wages as a public school teacher garnished if she did not pay both her and her ex-husband’s portions of their debt.” Rep. David E. Price (D-NC) recently told the Washington Post he’d also been moved to champion the bill by constituent stories: “The consequences were severe, with people’s credit being ruined, wages being garnished.”

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The bill now goes to Biden’s desk.