Better Humaning

Cancel Debts Not People

What would happen if we traded something abstract for something material?

Cancel Debts Not People

Elizabeth Warren has thrown her hat in on a bold idea that’s been in the air for a long time: cancel student loan debt.

Not interest rate decreases, or refinancing, or other half-measures, but an all out cancelation of up to $50K in student loan debt for anyone whose income is $100K or less. Combined with universal free public higher education going forward.

I was first introduced to this idea back in the early 2010s the Rolling Jubilee, a project by Strike Debt, which has now evolved into The Debt Collective.

Their project leveraged one of the most dysfunctional aspects of student loan debt: the fact that the debts get bundled and resold, over and over, for pennies on the dollar.

Rolling Jubilee raised $701,317 dollars (a few of which were mine, even as a broke post-grad student living under a pile of debt) and bought bundles of debt worth a total of $31,982,455.76.

Then, instead of trying to collect those debts, they abolished them. Poof. Gone. No more debt for the people whose loans were part of those bundles.

Those numbers highlight how broken, and at this point imaginary, the entire debt-debtor relationship is.

In what world does $700K buy $31M?

The broken world we currently live in.

The organizers of Rolling Jubilee were clear that their project was intended to be a spark — “not a solution to the debt crisis.”

Years later, it looks like that idea is ready to catch fire. Our world might be on the verge of transition.

As Elizabeth Warren raises the progressive bar for any would-be Democratic nominee for the 2020 US general election, other candidates — and their supporters — will have to come down on one side or the other of this issue. All this in a primary that is shaping up to have social justice issues as central platform points.

And I can’t help but celebrate this as a potential material social justice gain.

Incurring debt in order to pursue higher education is a barrier to accessing many currently-elitist dimensions of society. Requiring a college degree (and, increasingly, a graduate degree of some kind) is an effective way to keep historically disenfranchised people disenfranchised.

And it’s a barrier that disproportionately affects poor and lower-middle-class people, first generation (or generationally poor) people, undocumented people, and people of color. “Student loan debt weighs more heavily on students of color than on their white counterparts.”

We’re in a moment when a lot of social justice advocates, activists, and educators — myself included — are struggling to articulate exactly what policy, or change, we seek.

A lot of social justice action that is dominating the mainstream right now can be summed up as “cancel culture.” At least in online activism, it is the zeitgeist many of us are currently swept up in.

We can’t know how effective “canceling” people for bigoted, oppressive, or problematic behaviors will be in the long run for advancing the goals of social justice.

But it’s clear that if the tactic is effective, it can only be through a series of indirect, convoluted events — one thing leading to another, a butterfly effect of culture change and mindset shifting. And its success will mean an astronomical body count of lives derailed. This alone, for many of us, makes it unappealing as a tactic.

Abolishing student loan debt paints a picture in sharp contrast to the tactic of canceling people in the name of social justice. The distance between cause and effect is one signature.

Canceling student loan debt would have an immediate effect on people’s lives.

The benefits are obvious, intersectional, and massive.

Abolishing debt recognizes people’s humanity, instead of denying it.

The organizing principles surrounding canceling student debt foster solidarity, instead of undermining it.

This can serve as a concrete answer to “What do you mean by social justice?” A rallying cry for social justice that invigorates a jaded, disinterested, and disengaged majority.

I’m here for that. And I’ll happily wear it on my chest.


This post, Cancel Debts Not People, originally appeared on Every Shirt is Political, where I created a shirt, print, and stencil based on this idea.