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Student Debt Keeps Domestic Violence Survivors Tied to Their Abusers

Financial abuse is among the most prevalent forms of domestic abuse—but cancelling student debt would make it harder for abusers to exert long-term control.

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This week, President Biden announced his administration will forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for qualifying individuals, and some people—particularly those who had thousands in PPP loans forgiven by the government!—have some very loud opinions about this. The most common narrative propagated by the anti-student debt forgiveness camp is that canceling debt is unfair to those who already paid off their loans. It is, of course, remarkably cruel to argue that everyone should have to suffer because you did. And speaking of cruelty, victims of domestic violence are one group who will be disproportionately harmed by the student debt crisis.

Financial abuse—particularly coercing and controlling victims who may already have significant debt—is an extremely common form of domestic abuse. According to domestic violence experts, economic sabotage (for example, tanking a partner’s credit score) ranks among the top tactics used in abusive relationships. Sometimes, abusers take out massive loans in their victims’ name in an effort to entrap them in the relationship; other times, abusers attach their own debt to their victims, also as a means to entrap them. An early 2000s program meant to help with student debt made this even easier.

The 2000s program allowed married couples to consolidate their student loans to pay a lower interest rate, NPR reported earlier this year. But once their loans were merged, couples were given no avenue to separate them—even if they were divorced, and even in cases of domestic violence. While Congress eliminated this program in 2006 due to its varying logistical complications, there’s still no system to help the estimated 14,000 borrowers who merged their loans separate them. Through the program, some victims may still be tied to their abusers years later. And if their abusers refuse to pay their part of the consolidated loans, victims are left to foot the bill.

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Some survivors of intimate partner violence have detailed how sharing student debt with their abusers ruined their lives. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told NPR that one of his constituents told him she’s been on the hook for paying for her abusive ex-husband’s student loans for years, and he’s refused to pay his part. “While she physically got away, she couldn’t get away from this mutual debt from an abusive husband. That’s just wrong,” Warner said. In 2017, Warner introduced a bill that would allow joint loans to be split proportionately based on the original loan amounts in cases of divorce or domestic violence. Since introducing the bill, he says he’s heard from people across the country about experiences similar to his constituent’s. (The bill has not yet passed the House.)

The student debt crisis—through which 45 million Americans owe over $1.7 trillion—offers yet another vehicle for abusers to punish and control their victims through financial abuse. Economic policies contribute to or literally create the optimal conditions for domestic abuse to thrive. In the absence of living wages and universal health care, many women are entrapped in abusive relationships specifically because they rely on their abusive partner for health insurance, shelter, or money in general. If abuse victims have significant student debt, they could be rendered even more reliant on abusive partnerships and face even greater financial barriers to leaving the relationship.

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Monica McLaughlin of the National Network to End Domestic Violence told NPR in February that “many survivors cite their ability to provide financially for themselves and their children as one of the top reasons that they stay in an abusive relationship.”

Notably, a sizable number of people with student debt never even graduated or obtained the degree for which they took out massive loans. Between 2011 and 2017, nearly 40 percent of people who took out student loans didn’t complete their education in that time period. Included in that group, surely, are some of the estimated 34 percent of student survivors of physical, verbal, and/or sexual violence who were forced to drop out of school after being denied sufficient resources and support in the wake of their assault, or facing threats and intimidation from their assailant. With debilitating debt and without degrees, they are essentially set up for failure.

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Research has shown Black women and women of color are among those most impacted by the student debt crisis; they also experience intimate partner violence and campus sexual assault at disproportionately higher rates. Forgiving $10,000 in federal student debt is ultimately just one small step toward survivor and racial justice. But, sure: Let’s keep financially bleeding survivors dry, because how else would our military, itself embroiled in sexual assault allegations, continue to recruit without the threat of student debt?