Happy Birthday, Rolling Jubilee

| 11/15/2013 9:01:00 AM

Medical Debt is a Hard Pill to Swallow
Rolling Jubilee is one year old—what’s happened so far?

“Our message to the 1 percent is: We don’t owe you anything,” says Thomas Gokey, one of the minds behind Rolling Jubilee. It’s the first anniversary of this “bailout of the people by the people,” which kicked off last November 15th with a People’s Bailout telethon.

The basic idea behind the bailout? Buying bad debt on the secondary market for a fraction of the amount owed, then forgiving it. The effect is dual, relieving everyday people of burdensome debt while exposing systems that cause debt and those that profit from it. If someone gets cancer and can’t hold down job, then recovers but can’t pay the medical bills, is the debt fair? If students take out loans on the advice of their parents, then graduate and can’t find living-wage jobs, is it their fault they can’t make the monthly payment? These are the kind of questions Rolling Jubilee prompts us to ask.

62 percent of all bankruptcies are due to medical debtSo far, Rolling Jubilee has focused its efforts on dispelling medical debt. This revival of jubilee, an Old-Testament-era practice, sprang from the Occupy movement. After leaving Zuccotti Park, a crew of Occupiers started Strike Debt and hatched a plan for the Rolling Jubilee. The anniversary date is significant, says Gokey. “It’s the one year anniversary of this project, but it’s the two year anniversary of the eviction of Zuccotti Park.”

While it took some time to work out the logistics behind raising money and eradicating debt, Strike Debt’s jubilee gives the lie to anyone who claims Occupy fizzled. The original goal was to raise $50,000 and abolish $1 million in debt. A year in—with the recent purchase of two portfolios amounting to $13.5 million in debt—they’ve freed thousands of debtors across the country from a total of $14.7 million.

Talking to Thomas Gokey, I get the impression that this is just the beginning. “The true measure of success for Rolling Jubilee,” he says, “is whether we can spark a large-scale debtors’ movement. While buying up the debt eliminates the profit for lenders, it’s not a real solution.”

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