Opinion | Student Loans. Medical Debt. Criminal Justice Fees. Cancel It All.

Credit…Paul Sahre

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By Astra Taylor

Ms. Taylor, a writer, filmmaker and activist, is the author, most recently, of “Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions.”

Formerly enslaved people called the phase that followed the Civil War, and their emancipation, “Jubilee.” In doing so, they at once communicated the joy of freedom and knowingly invoked the authority of the Bible: jubilee as an Old Testament law commanding the end of slavery, redistribution of land and forgiveness of debts. The prophetic term was another name for the period more commonly known as Reconstruction.

That attempt to usher in a more substantive democracy — racially egalitarian and responsive to its poorest citizens — was swiftly abandoned by the federal government and violently suppressed by Southern reactionaries. Reconstruction’s sabotage still reverberates: in the dysfunction of our political system, in the endurance of white supremacy, in our ever-widening inequality.

While the White House likes to trumpet good news about the economy’s recovery from Covid-19, it’s important to understand how unequal the recovery has been. From March 2020 to March 2021, America’s billionaires increased their combined fortunes by over $1.3 trillion, according to an analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies, while millions of families, particularly in working-class communities of color, either scraped by or fell further into arrears. The nonmortgage debt load of retirees has, on average, doubled; while eviction bans kept many families off the street, they did not stop back rent from piling up. Millions more people fell into medical debt during the pandemic, which experts warn may soon lead to a spike in personal bankruptcies.

Instead of hawking a “recovery” that disproportionately benefits the wealthy, President Biden and his colleagues should help finish the work of Reconstruction. The time has come to revive the Jubilee — which in the modern era would mean the erasure of debts and a democratic rebalancing of power between regular people and elites.

Since before this nation’s founding, indebtedness has been useful to the powerful as both a source of profit and a tool of social control and racial domination. Thomas Jefferson’s view is particularly revealing: While he fulminated against debt as an unjust encumbrance on posterity and argued for the termination of debts unpaid after “natural limits” (which he took to be the span of a generation), he recommended wielding debt as a tool to dispossess Indigenous people, “because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.”

After slavery’s abolition, similar tactics were deployed to squelch hopes for Jubilee. Sharecropping and tenant farming arrangements used debt to secure white landlords generations of exploitable labor, ensuring Reconstruction would remain undone.

Today, financial predators, aided by allies in Washington from both parties, target borrowers who come from marginalized backgrounds, lack intergenerational wealth and face wage discrimination on the job, ensuring lifetimes of repayment while compounding social inequities and racial disparities.

The rich, meanwhile, can use credit to their advantage: Individuals walk away from their obligations (Donald Trump, the self-professed “king of debt,” epitomizes this warped paradigm) and companies engage in strategic defaults.

The same ethos informed the first Covid relief package. Congress stabilized the corporate debt market and offered companies forgivable loans (they even aided payday lenders and debt collectors that had previously been fined by regulators) but failed to extend equivalent generosity to regular borrowers, who instead received inadequate payment pauses and cash assistance. Even this support was a circuitous bailout for creditors, given that people spent much of what they received to pay down debts. (Debt collectors could garnish people’s third stimulus checks.)

Where the American dream used to be owning a home with a white picket fence, now it is getting out of debt. For many, the humble aspiration of owing zero dollars seems out of reach. Over his long career, Mr. Biden has contributed to this crisis by working to strengthen the hands of creditors, including through a 2005 bankruptcy reform bill that rolled back protections for borrowers.

The time has come to make amends. If the Biden administration is serious about “Build Back Better,” it needs to take bold action. This country cannot afford to allow millions of struggling households to sink when a mountain of old bills and back rent suddenly come due once payment pauses and eviction moratoriums end. The government can and must find ways to make crushing debt disappear.

Student loans, medical debt, utility bills, criminal justice fines and fees, and municipal debt all need to be written down or canceled outright. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the various legal means by which this can be accomplished, and many other potential strategies exist.

To begin, President Biden should honor his campaign promise for Congress to “immediately” cancel student debt for borrowers. There is no reason to hold back. Erasing every penny of federal student debt would improve nearly 45 million lives, help narrow the racial wealth gap and most likely win over a good number of Republican voters in advance of the midterms. The Debt Collective, a membership organization for debtors I helped found, has already drafted the executive order the president could sign tomorrow to do so — no need to involve Congress or pass legislation.

Next, he should tackle medical debt. Following the lead of a proposal by Senator Bernie Sanders, Democrats could eliminate all medical debt in collections, including fees incurred because of Covid. (At the very least, legislators should protect borrowers by ensuring that past-due hospital bills aren’t reported on credit scores and make it harder for collectors to come after patients.)

Finally, elected officials also need to relieve renters of the enormous burden they hold by canceling accumulated rent debt, preferably in a way that doesn’t simply bail out and further enrich and empower landlords. Passing the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act introduced by Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota would be a good start.

These ideas are not outside the mainstream. Over 415 organizations, including the Minority Veterans of America, the National Young Farmers Coalition and the N.A.A.C.P., have signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to use executive authority to cancel student debt. In the early days of the pandemic, the Poor People’s Campaign, a racial and economic justice group, introduced the Jubilee Platform, and it recently collaborated with progressive congressional legislators on a “Third Reconstruction Resolution,” both of which prominently feature debt relief.

Contrary to worries that letting debtors off the hook would sink the economy, there is evidence it would actually help keep it afloat by providing a much-needed financial boost. Freeing up money now spent on debt servicing to circulate more widely would increase demand, create jobs and encourage entrepreneurialism. A Jubilee would be a boon for everyone, even those who don’t need direct assistance.

But the effect would be more far-reaching than what can be measured by G.D.P. A Jubilee would help us reconstruct both our monetary economy and our moral one. A renegotiation of the social contract is long overdue.

While the affluent shirk their obligations by refusing to pay taxes and living wages, and then use the wealth they’ve hoarded to fund politicians who protect their interests, poverty is shrouded in shame and stigma. But indebtedness is not a personal failing and debtors are not to blame, which is why we should reject the language of “debt forgiveness” and instead demand debt abolition, a phrase that pays homage to the concept of “abolition democracy” developed by the historian and activist W.E.B. Du Bois.

“Abolition democracy” was Du Bois’s name for what Reconstruction aspired to achieve — a process that would involve both the dismantling of racist institutions and the building of new egalitarian, cooperative political and economic relationships. We are owed nothing less.

Astra Taylor (@astradisastra) is a filmmaker, activist and writer. She is the author, most recently, of “Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions.”

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