This past week, many who are struggling financially cheered the Biden administration’s decision to extend eviction protections for a month. But with coronavirus economic relief for federal student loans set to expire Sept. 30, many are now sounding the alarm on the issue: Without a final decision from the Biden administration on another freeze on federal student loan payments, those in debt could have to go back to making their monthly payments, and interest rates — which are set at zero percent under the protections — could rise.
Some of the loudest calls for action are coming from Black women, who, according to a recent study conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), carry the heaviest burden of student loan debt, with an average of $41,466 in comparison with White women, who have an average debt load of $33,852, and men, who have an average debt load of $29,270.
With fewer opportunities and enhanced difficulty in creating generational wealth, Black students borrow more often and owe more money to support their education, according to research.
The prospects are worse for Black women, who are among the lowest-paid demographic, making on average 63 cents for every dollar a White man makes, on average — resulting in Black women earning nearly $1 million less than White men over the course of a 40-year career, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
And that narrative only gets worse for mothers.
“For Black moms, the issues are compounded,” said Gloria Blackwell, executive vice president and chief program officer at the AAUW. “Compounding is good for a lot of things, such as investments, but it’s bad when we’re discussing the economic realities for Black women.”
Researchers have long brought attention to what they call the motherhood penalty, in which mothers are routinely penalized on the job, passed up for promotions and not viewed as desirable employees. A study published in the January 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research found that first-time mothers see their income drop 30 percent after giving birth and are unlikely to see their pay rate recover. The burden is made even heavier when considering that Black mothers are more likely to be sole, primary or co-breadwinners in the family.
“Black women get caught in the cycle of debt and debt repayment, which is compounded by the pay gap,” Blackwell said. “That results in entering the workforce with one or two strikes against you, and those things just compound as you go throughout your career.”
As Black women deal with these challenges, debt gets kicked further down the line — and can intersect with trying to pay for child care.
Child-care bills can cost more than $1,000 per month in some states, according to the Economy Policy Institute, while the average monthly U.S. student loan payment is nearly $400. On an already statistically smaller paycheck, Black mothers are often left to make tough choices between student loans and caring for their family.
It’s a struggle 38-year-old Zanade Mann — a mother of three, a digital marketing consultant and founder of the Black Women’s Business Collective — knows well. Years ago, as a young mother and college student, the New York native was making $40,000 a year and paying $1,400 a month for child care, she said.
That left little money not only for student loans, Mann said, but for daily living expenses and saving money for future financial securities. Now that her children are older, any additional income is applied to enrichment programs for her daughters. “I feel like I’m constantly made to choose between being a good mother by putting the kids in activities that interest them, or paying more than the minimum on student loans to pay it down faster,” she said. “And as a Black mother to Black children, I always want to make sure I provide them with whatever I can now, so they don’t have to work twice as hard for too little in the future.”
When child-care expenses sometimes exceed a mother’s paycheck, she can be forced to choose between working outside the home and working inside the home to care for the children.
“My goal is to be completely debt-free, but it’s a struggle when I have to choose between working and being a stay-at-home mom,” said Katayah Jones of Woodbridge, N.J., a mother to a 5-year-old and a 1-month-old. “I wish motherhood was seen as a job, as it is. The same way my husband gets credits or tax breaks for commutes to work, et cetera, I wish mothers would get more breaks for things like driving the kids back and forth to school, because it is a job and we are contributing to society.”
Jones said that the expanded child tax credit, which started hitting bank accounts in July and will give parents up to an extra $3,600 per child this year, “does help.” But, she said, “we need more financial help.”
More than 20 percent of Black college graduates default on their student loans, a rate far higher than that of White students who leave college without a degree. Those defaulted student loans can result in lower credit scores, which can affect Black women’s ability to get decent rates on auto loans and mortgages.
That bleak future of debt was enough reason for Dasha Kennedy — a mother, a financial coach and founder of The Broke Black Girl — to withdraw from college after one year after she had her second son, when she realized the potential debt load in comparison with her salary at the time didn’t look too promising.
“The fear of the student loan debt just sitting there was crippling,” she said. “I was able to take care off other debt, but student debt was the last on my list, because my priority was keeping me and my sons above water.”
Now, Kennedy said, she uses her experiences and the realities of Black women to help them feel empowered to make beneficial financial decisions while bridging the gap between equity and financial education.
Alleviating the situation requires an overhaul of the system, according to Blackwell. Although $10,000 in student loan forgiveness — which is what Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail — is a good start, it’s not enough, considering the out-of-pocket expenses of education often not covered by grants and other aid, according to AAUW research.
“We need something equitable so that no one, including the neediest borrowers, get left behind,” Blackwell said. For her, that starts with simplifying the process for programs such as income-driven repayment plans and making sure information about repaying loans is accessible.
Blackwell also suggests having adequately staffed agencies to ensure private lenders are following the laws — and to help prevent predatory lenders from taking advantage of borrowers.
Additionally, parental leave, flexible work hours and affordable child care are among AAUW’s recommendations for helping eliminate the student loan burden on women. Finally, passing laws to close the pay gap, which imposes a great burden on women’s ability to pay student loans, would create a positive effect, Blackwell said.
“There’s no lack of educated, ambitious Black women in the country and around the world, but in the workplace, there are so many factors that contribute to a Black women’s inability to rise,” she added.
For now, many women will be closely watching what the Biden administration chooses to do in terms of taking executive action to forgive student loans.
“I don’t mean to sound dramatic,” Mann said, “but forgiving student loans can literally free us as Black women and mothers. That could be life-changing.”