Jubilee and Debt Abolition: A Bill Collector's Perspective

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As a “bill collector” by profession, I am the last person that many would expect to advocate for the abolition of debt. If all debts were abolished, my profession would not exist!
But my experiences as a bill collector are exactly why I have arrived at the belief that here in the U.S., if not the world, a Jubilee is in order. I believe that every personal debt of any magnitude needs to be evaluated and – meeting certain qualifications – abolished.
Please note the “certain qualifications” part, and I will return to that further on.
This conclusion of mine wouldn’t surprise a lot of my associates in the collections industry, as I have long been a questioner and gadfly. I blogged for the industry advocate publication, insideARM for some time, which only reluctantly published pieces I wrote such as “Ethics: The Missing Ingredient in the Debt Collection Industry Business Model,” or “Follow Directions or Be Fired! A Debt Professional’s Dilemma.”
I was long a critic of the unquestioned pursuit of a debt, and particularly of debt incurred through payday lenders and other such predators. It was my experience with the Occupy Wall Street movement that amplified and honed my criticism of debt in general.
It didn’t go without notice by my fellow occupiers that I was an unusual addition to the mix. I was among the first to decry student debt (even before Occupy) and could always be found in various commerce-oriented working groups, such as Alt.Banking or writing scathing articles about my favorite bank, JPMorgan Chase.
So, it wasn’t unusual that I was approached early-in by the OWS Strike Debt! group to advise them on a new project they had in mind – raising money to buy personal medical debt and then to abolish it. At first, I scoffed at the idea and their target of $1 million in medical debt as being not even a “rounding error” in the debt buying industry; this would only be a gesture.
It was patiently explained to me that I had missed the point – their point. First, that medical debt on the face of it shouldn’t even exist in a civilized society. Secondly, any person relieved of debt in the $1 million that was abolished would hardly consider it a “gesture.”
I was sold, and I signed on as a consultant and mentor and saw to it that they also brought on board industry specialists to ensure success.
Now, back to my caveat of “certain qualifications.” Medical debt was the target chosen by the Rolling Jubilee, and for reasons I supported. Trust me, if the debt had been to obtain a wide-screen TV or a dream vacation, my feelings would not be as sanguine. First, medical debt is (forgiving cosmetic surgery and the like) seldom an expense people search out and willingly take on. In the case of a catastrophic health situation, the weight of debt that arrives with the illness or accident is almost too much to bear.
Secondly, medical debt should not exist here in the U.S. How can a country spend trillions on war and turn its citizens – even its veterans – away from health services? Were we not instructed by our forefathers to make access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness available to all? What is more important to life, than our health?
So, in late 2012, the Rolling Jubilee set about to raise $50,000 to purchase the $1 million worth of medical debt to supply a two-fold purpose: provide a fortunate few in that “debt buy” a bit of relief, and to make a political statement. Medical debt is wrong!
They put on a one-evening event in a crowded east village pub. It was wonderful.
Termed “people bailing out people,” the campaign blew past that modest goal, has raised over $700,000, and has abolished almost $25 million dollars in debt by the time the campaign was completed in mid-2014. Strike Debt has now turned its attention to creating a national debt collective.
Sadly, the work done didn’t even scratch the surface of medical debt. It has been estimated that medical debt written off by hospitals alone (termed “uncompensated care”) approaches $100 billion annually. I would call that a good beginning in addressing America’s debt problem. (Don’t even get me started on student debt, payday loans, predatory mortgages and the like. They would be my next suggested targets, and that is exactly what Strike Debt is now addressing.)
Which leads to my arriving at my personal belief that a Jubilee is in order and in keeping with the Bible which offers a powerful call to ban interest on loans, to forgive all debts each seven years.
So, why should the recommendations of a reformed “bill collector,” and not a very religious one, deserve your consideration? Again, it’s all about perspective.
A good friend of mine in the collections industry once described the collector as “someone who sweeps up after the parade.” And, what a parade we have had to shovel after. As the too-big-to-fail financial elephants trumpet their way up the street, we are left behind to sift through and sweep up the mess they have left.
Dealing with the challenges of debt collection we can handle; that’s our job. Most heartbreaking are the human remains. Lost homes, broken families, loved ones lost to illnesses because medical help was unaffordable and those left behind struggling to pay those bills…
Perhaps if our legislators, politicians, clergy, philanthropists, (enlightened) business executives and educators were to take up a shovel with me, they might see the injustice and better understand the need for a complete reversal of our thinking of the role of debt in our society.
To paraphrase Shakespeare’s famous statement, “First, we kill all the lawyers.” I’d soften that a bit and say, first, we kill all debt. And, what better way than via a jubilee.
That would be a parade I would love to follow…with a very, very large dustpan.
For more on Jubilee and Debt Abolition, check out Tikkun’s Winter 2015 issue here.

Jerry Ashton is a forty-year veteran in credit and collections and an acknowledged gadfly in that industry. He has been chronicling the Occupy Wall Street movement early in its inception and has become an “unintended activist” through that experience. He blogs as well for the Huffington Post.