Over 1,000 Americans will be receiving good news in the mail soon, in the form of letters advising them that at least some of their debt has been abolished. Thanks to Rolling Jubilee, an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street and counterpart to the Strike Debt initiative, over $1 million of personal medical debt no longer exists. The nonprofit organization uses crowd-sourced funds to purchase debt on the secondary market and then simply abolishes it, for people and families who are being crushed with medical debt at a time when they are ill or injured.
With two debt purchases completed since the group’s launch last fall, and another purchase in the works, Rolling Jubilee has already far surpassed its initial goal of raising $50,000. The organizers are steadily moving forward, hoping to wipe out more debt, and they are tirelessly working to raise awareness about “the degree to which our lives are for sale,” according to activist and filmmaker Astra Taylor.
After realizing the ways in which debt is a unifying issue among the 99%—covering student loans, foreclosed mortgages, and medical bills—Occupy organizers saw the opportunity to take collective measures against debt. After Syracuse-based artist and Occupy Wall Street participant Thomas Gokey figured out the logistics involved in collectively purchasing and then forgiving debt, organizers came together, officially forming the Jubilee last November. The plan was to purchase debt for pennies on the dollar, in the same way that secondary debt collectors do, but then rather than trying to collect the debt, the Jubilee would abolish it. The hope was to raise $50,000 through a telethon. They quickly raised more than 10 times that, all through donations.
Though the idea may seem radical—especially in a country where debt is a defining cultural characteristic—Jubilees go back to biblical times when every 50 years slaves were freed and debts were forgiven. Now, according to Strike Debt, 77.5 percent of American households are in one form of debt or another, and 62 percent of personal bankruptcies are linked to medical debt, in part because cash-strapped Americans often use credit cards to pay for medical care and living expenses when they cannot afford exorbitant healthcare costs.
In the group’s most recent debt purchase, all the affected individuals had fallen into the red as a result of hospital and emergency room visits. They owed an average of $900, with the single highest debt reaching almost $9,000.
Rolling Jubilee’s third debt purchase is slated for this spring, and while details are yet to be released regarding the purchase, the organization’s website keeps a running record of the group’s projected debt relief purchasing power. At present, the group has enough donations to abolish over $11 million in personal debt. It’s possible that in the future the Jubilee will target other forms of debt, but for now the organizers are sticking to medical debt, in part because it opens up the conversation in a way that can’t be challenged: nobody chooses to get sick. Unlike other types of debt, there is little question of poor-decision making when it comes to medical red ink: it is undeniably the result of a deeply broken system.
Rolling Jubilee also hopes to shed light on industry practices in the shady secondary debt market, which preys on low-income and working poor people. With four publicly traded debt-buying companies in the U.S., and over 500 private debt buyers who do everything from harassing people over the phone to freezing bank accounts, garnishing wages, and seizing assets, “you really have to look at the system that enables them,” Taylor said. “There are not medical debt collectors in other countries where there are public health programs.”
Through innovative programming, education, and outreach, the ultimate goal of Rolling Jubilee is to organize politically around debt. Since most of the 99% is in some form of debt to the 1%, it becomes a framework to bring together people who may not otherwise see the ways in which their struggles are similar. When it comes to debt, the recent liberal arts grad with student loans suddenly has a lot in common with that family in Las Vegas whose home was foreclosed on. In Taylor’s view, “It’s important that we think about the issue of how to translate this to political action, and an opportunity to organize and educate people.”
SARA ROFFINO is the managing editor of the Rail.