For the more than 40 million student debtors who, on average, owe $30,000, keeping up with bills every month is next to impossible. In fact, new data released by the Department of Education shows that nearly a third of all student debtors with federal student debt are behind on their bills. As we’ve reported in the past, in at least 22 states, it can get even worse, because there are laws on the books to revoke professional and driver’s licenses for people who default on their student debt.
We helped expose these unjust and punitive laws earlier this year, inspiring a flood of media attention and a wave of efforts to repeal them across the country. In Montana, we partnered with the Montana Organizing Project to build momentum around a bill introduced by state representative Moffie Funk and co-sponsored by state representative Daniel Zolnikov that will repeal one of these laws. The bill was able to gain bipartisan support due to our efforts and recently passed both the State House and Senate, and has just been signed by Governor Steve Bullock.
Montana is the first state to officially reverse course and decriminalize student debt, but others have begun to follow its example. For the tens of thousands of student debtors that lose their ability to work and effectively repay their student debt, this is an immediate solution to a problem that never should have existed in the first place.
“You’re making criminals out of people who, for a multitude of reasons, have defaulted on their student loans,” Representative Moffie Funk told Bloomberg. “It’s so punitive and so demeaning.”
Repealing these state laws that criminalize student debt is crucial. Taking away someone’s ability to work or drive doesn’t make it easier to pay off their student debt, but it doesn’t just hurt the debtor. The workers that are being impacted by these laws are often integral members of our communities, keeping hospitals and elementary schools running.
Rather than punishing those struggling to pay off their debt, Jobs With Justice’s Debt-Free Future campaign aims at finding solutions for debtors and putting them on a path toward debt-relief through flexible repayment options and forgiveness programs like income-driven repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Of the projected 33 million workers eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, only 133,000 workers are currently enrolled in it. Imagine if all of these nurses and teachers who had received letters in the mail saying they were losing their licenses had instead received notices that they could actually have their student debt forgiven. Imagine if the eight million student debtors currently in default and having their wages, social security and tax returns garnished had instead received information about tying their monthly payment to their incomes to make payments affordable.
Montana has taken a huge first step in the process of ending our criminalization and punishment of student debtors. Hopefully the remaining 21 other states with these laws will follow suit.