New Internationalist

You are not a loan


Strike Debt want to reduce the burden of personal debt. Photo: jamescollins, under a CC License.

‘Debt is the tie that binds the 99 per cent together,’ says Matthew McLoughlin. ‘Like most Americans I’m struggling …I’ve got $60,000 of student loan debt.’ McLoughlin was an organizer with Occupy in Chicago when he first heard about the Strike Debt campaign. ‘Right away it hit home as a way to further the conversation that the Occupy movement started last year.’

‘A bailout for the 99 per cent’ is how Strike Debt describes the ‘Rolling Jubilee’, plan to abolish millions of dollars in personal debt. The idea is to buy up bundles of distressed debt on the secondary debt market, where it’s sold for a knockdown price of about five per cent of its value and, instead of asking the people concerned to repay it, the debt would be abolished.

It’s an idea that seems to be catching on. Since the campaign’s launch in mid-November 2012, Strike Debt says it has raised enough money from supporters to buy, and then abolish, more than $8.5 million worth of debt. While that represents a tiny fraction of US citizens’ personal debt, the group has much bigger ambitions. ‘The idea behind the Jubilee is providing aid, but it’s also raising awareness.’ explains McLoughlin. He hopes the Rolling Jubilee will highlight the size of the US debt problem and its sources. ‘We don’t feel that we owe these companies anything for the debts they’re trying to collect from us, which are mostly for things that should be guaranteed: like housing, medicine, and higher education.’

Rolling Jubilee will start by buying up medical debt, a problem that afflicts many Americans. As Steffie Woolhandler, a Professor of Public Health at the City University of New York, and a member of Physicians for a National Health Program explains, ‘More than half of all personal bankruptcies in the United States are due, at least in part, to medical illness or medical debt’.

‘Bankruptcy is something I constantly think about.’ says Rebecca Randel, a 39 year-old graduate student, ‘It weighs on me all the time.’ Back in the winter of 2009 Randel had what she calls ‘a classic American healthcare experience’. A week in hospital for emergency treatment left her with $24, 000 of medical costs. Without health insurance and the bills piling up she was forced to use her credit card to make the minimum payments required to keep it from going to collection agencies.  ‘I would have nightmares about how to pay my bills,’ says Randel. ‘I couldn’t sleep at night because I knew I had to make another credit card payment or I was about to max out a credit card.’

Like many people, Randel says she was ashamed of her debt, until she found that she was far from alone. ‘People feel very guilty about unpaid debt,’ says Steffie Woolhandler. ‘They need to remember it’s not their fault they got sick.’ By starting a public conversation about debt, Strike Debt activists say they hope to bring people together to challenge the system that creates it. ‘It’s going to spread like wildfire,’ says Strike Debt organizer, Danielle Villarreal ‘in the same way that ideas about economic inequality did under Occupy, because that was also something that everyone felt and no one was talking about.’ Next, the group plans to organize people who can’t or won’t pay back money they owe, in a co-ordinated debt strike.

So far, Strike Debt has earned praise from some unlikely sources. Business Insider described the Rolling Jubilee as ‘brilliant’, while Forbes ran a column entitled ‘Finally, an Occupy Wall Street Idea We Can All Get Behind’. Meanwhile, Strike Debt groups have sprung up across the US, and further afield, including Britain.

For Nick Mirzoeff, a Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, tackling debt is just the beginning. ‘This is a way to begin a much wider conversation about what we value in our society,’ he says.‘What we value in people and what we expect a life should be about. We think a life should be about more than just repaying loans, we think people are more than just a loan.’

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