After having raised over $700,000 in "People Bailing Out People" funds and then using a majority of these dollars to purchase -- and abolish -- upwards of $15,000,000 in personal medical debt, Occupy Wall Street's Strike Debt is now stalking a more formidable quarry -- Student Debt.
On September 17, 2014 at Zuccotti Park, NYC, its working group, Rolling Jubilee (RJ), will announce its first major purchase of student debt and Strike Debt's ambitious plans for an intensive campaign to "amplify ongoing protests against the privatization of our colleges and universities."
Timing this occasion non-coincidentally with Occupy's third birthday, and to kick off this celebration, Strike Debt intends to expand on this ambitious declaration:
"Our latest debt buy is also an opportunity to promote the common-sense solutions that are being ignored by elected officials from (such as things as) making all two and four-year public colleges tuition free."
Although the team which originally launched RJ always had student debt in mind -- many of them were students and faculty members -- they decided to launch their campaign by first choosing to abolish medical debt.
It was an easy and strategic decision to cull from the low hanging fruit of unpaid debt. For one, unpaid medical bills are a condition that almost every individual or family could relate to on a visceral level. It is only human to sympathize with someone who had an unexpected, even catastrophic, medical incident.
A second benefit was being able to tap into a well-established medical debt buying-and-selling industry which made it easier to locate and negotiate purchases.
Student debt is, well, a bit more intricate.
Not that this concern over student indebtedness hasn't also occupied the nation's thoughts. A major, front-page piece by reporter Andrew Martin in the NY Times on 9/9/12 captioned "Degrees of Debt: Debt Collectors Cashing In on Student Loan Roundup" delved deeply into the problem.
That article itself was inspired and quoted from, in part, a blog I had written earlier that year for the collections industry online site, insideARM. Mine was titled "A Love Letter From Your Student Bill Collector," and in it I satirically "complimented" my industry mates on the upcoming financial boon that was just over the horizon and thanked lawmakers for making this possible.
That debt as I described it, and the Times quoted it, is "lipsmacking."
Not all of my fellow bill collectors enjoyed the spin. They take their job seriously, and expect others to do so as well. One of them eloquently defended the moral need to pursue these errant students and their defaulted status:
And where does self accountability factor into all of this? How about parental involvement? I agree that the cost of higher education has gotten out of control, but this is not like a gambling addiction. People make the choice to take out these loans and there will always be consequences for actions. I'm sure there are sincere and honest hardships that have caused many people to default on their loans.
But for every one of those examples there are ten more of people who decided to bury their head in the sand as opposed to looking into programs and options available to help them prevent their loans from reaching a defaulted status.
On the surface, that is a fair criticism, and he pounded in a few more nails:
When did we as a society decide to completely take self accountability out of the equation? If you don't sit down and put a basic budget together to try and figure out what you can afford when making a major financial decision you are placing yourself in a high risk situation.
I know a lot of 17/18 year old kids lack the maturity to think this way, so where are the parents during this decision making process? Just making the assumption that you are getting a degree from a prestigious school doesn't guarantee you the right to a high paying job, does it?
And if you are choosing to attend for profit schools like any of Apollo Group or Corinthian Colleges doing a little research on cost and potential future earnings would open a lot of eyes.
Let me see if I got this right.
Let us employ a college exercise and "compare and contrast" the legitimacy of someone being a victim of medical debt to someone who is swimming in school debt. As example: balance a $50,000 bill for open heart surgery (if you can get one that cheap -- my sextuple bypass cost three times that) visited on an unfortunate victim against $50,000 in tuition and school costs run up by ne'er-do-well students and their inattentive parents.
One is obviously the best candidate for debt abatement and financial help than the other, right? Well, my industry colleague and fellow Americans, it ain't quite that simple. There are a few elements in scholastic debt that identify it as a major mistake that needs attention and major correcting. Consider:
*Student debt totals more than $1,000,000,000,000 (yes, that's trillion). That's more than all combined credit card debt in the U.S.
*Student debt is a drain on the economy, much more so than medical debt. Where a college degree (and its costs) once assured the student of a good job, home and standard of living, it has evolved to mean that this graduate -- if they graduate -- has a worse credit score, poorer job prospects, can afford neither a car nor a home loan and are more likely to be living at home with their parents.
*Many creditors holding student loans are not held accountable as they are when making a car or home loan. Thanks to ill-considered government guarantees that promise the lender safety, banks and lending institutions fell over themselves to "approve" loans that clearly would never be repaid. When the only goal is to make money, the inevitable pathway is that of abuse.
*Colleges have no skin in the game. Federal student loans are essentially made by the college or school, using government (our) money. What a playground! No underwriting criteria, almost no limit on loan size, you can hook parents or grandparents into co-signing and no need to live up to a "gainful employment" rule -- where your institution can boast a clear history of producing graduates who earn enough to repay loans.
*You can collect the hell out of student debt! Unlike conventional loans, bankruptcy will not cancel student loan obligations. Who else falls into that privileged category? Convicted felons. Adding further injury to this insult, the government has the right to seize income tax refunds and, along with their collection agency minions, garnishee wages.
Can you imagine the outrage if equivalent legislation prevented people drowning in medical debt from seeking the protection of bankruptcy?
As onerous as medical debt is, Strike Debt is right in turning its attention to student debt. Our country's future cannot sustain this level of student debt. We need to see student debt abolished equally as much as do our students. Our national future may depend on it.
It will be interesting to see how Strike Debt will approach this campaign, and if the focus on "people bailing out people" still guides their work. If they fundraise, will they continue to depend on small, individual donations? Will they raise money by way of events featured on "streaming media" over the Internet, or will they go mainstream and perhaps use a "telethon" approach. Will they, perhaps, seek crowd-funding?
Or, will they simply gather that crowd, hand out pitchforks and lanterns and storm the Provost's office?
I would venture to prophesy that, whatever their efforts, the results will dwarf what was done for medical debt. They just might be trading Rolling Jubilee in for a Steam Roller this time.