We think of debt as a tangible, real thing, something solid enough to be bought and sold. But one nonprofit is focusing on the fact that everyday people’s debt can be simply… deleted.
In Leviticus 25, the ancient law declares that one year in fifty shall be a year of Jubilee, when debts are cancelled, mortgaged property reverts to its owners, and slaves are granted their freedom. If you tried suggesting that today, people would tell you it would wreck the economy. Instead we have the Rolling Jubilee, a unique new nonprofit organization that grew out of the Occupy movement. Their business model is simple: they buy people’s debts at pennies on the dollar, the same deal usually offered to collection agencies, and then rather than trying to collect them, they simply cancel them. Already they have raised enough to cancel over ten million dollars in individual debts, mostly medical. The beneficiaries receive a brief note explaining that they no longer owe that money to anyone, that this is a free gift with no strings attached.
We spoke to some of the people behind the organization to get a better insight into what they do and how it works.
For our readers who might not know the behind-the-scenes workings of the financial system, can you briefly describe the system that allows you to leverage donations? How effective is that leverage in practical terms?
Banks sell defaulted charged-off debt on a shadowy speculative market of debt buyers, debt sellers, and debt collectors. This is a multi-billion dollar industry where profits are made due to people’s inability to afford education, healthcare, food, etc. However, this debt is sold for pennies on the dollar. The kind of debt we will be buying will run around 1-5% of the original principal. The Rolling Jubilee purchases debt on this secondary market at steeply discounted prices, and then instead of collecting it, abolishes it. Debtors receive a letter stating that they are no longer under any obligation to satisfy this debt with anyone. We think of it as a “bailout by the people, for the people.”
What are the origins of the Rolling Jubilee project? Whose idea was it initially, and how did that develop?
This idea had been circulating in activist circles for several years. In May 2012, Strike Debt was formed when several groups, including Occupy Student Debt Campaign, Occupy Theory, Free University, Occupy University, etc. gathered in Washington Square Park for an assembly on debt and education. Thomas Gokey, an activist and teacher who was then living in Syracuse was present, and suggested that we finally put this idea into practice. A group was subsequently formed that started working on the project.
One criticism of your work is that by entering the market and bidding on this debt, you are driving up its value and thus reducing your own leverage. How do you respond to that criticism?
The Rolling Jubilee was never meant to be a solution to the debt crisis we are currently facing, in and of itself. It is a means, one of several strategies we are using to strike at the debt system. Our intention was never to attempt to buy out the debt market or to operate on a massive scale. We are providing support on a small scale, and we are aware of that. As a result, we do not believe that there is a risk of us driving up the value of debt exchanged on the secondary market.
Who holds most of the debt that you buy? What are its major sources, and why?
As of now, we are focusing primarily on medical debt. In some cases, hospitals and physicians groups still hold this debt and act as original creditors. In others, the debt has been sold on a secondary market and is now held by collection agencies and debt buyers.
Have you heard from any individuals whose debts you have cancelled? If so, what did they have to say?
This very week, we mailed letters to the first debtors whose debt has been abolished. These accounts were part of our first buy, where for $5000 we successfully purchased $100 000 worth of medical debt form upstate NY. We still haven’t heard from any of these individuals as packages are still on their way, but we believe people will try to get in contact with us in the upcoming weeks. We have, however, since the project started, received an incredible amount of emails from people who wanted to share their debt story and who felt invigorated by this effort.
What do you see as the future of Rolling Jubilee? Can your operation continue to scale up? What is the theoretical upper limit you could reach?
To begin with, we are focusing on medical debt, as we believe no one should have to go into debt due to an illness. We’ve already made our first buy and in the upcoming months we hope to make several more medical debt buys in different cities and states. In the future, we may experiment we other types of debt such as payday loans or private tuition debt. As Strike Debt, we are also exploring other forms of debt resistance. Possibilities range from debt clinics, to collectively refusing to pay illegitimate loans, to targeting and shutting down collections agencies or for-profit colleges, to fighting for free education and healthcare, etc.
Why should people donate to Rolling Jubilee instead of another charitable organization?
We do not conceive of the Rolling Jubilee as charity but rather as an act of mutual aid. The distinction is very important to us. Charity is a vertical relation that places the recipients in the role of victims whereas mutual aid is a horizontal relation based on trust, cooperation and mutual empowerment. People who are aligned with these principles, who are interested in different ways of striking at the debt system, and also in building a more just and equitable economy, should donate to the Rolling Jubilee.
What is something people don’t know about Rolling Jubilee, or a common misconception people hold about you, that you’d like to clarify?
The Rolling Jubilee is just the beginning. With this project, we meant to shed light on the predatory nature of the industry while offering support to some of our fellow debtors. We wanted to shift the conversation from debt as a personal problem and responsibility, to debt as a structural problem of social justice. And I believe we have been successful at that. People in different locations are now discussing the internal workings of this shady system and the causes of our massive indebtedness. But once again, Rolling Jubilee is but one project of Strike Debt, a project that was meant to bring people together and start thinking about what an alternative economy, based on common good rather than profit for the 1%, would look like.