People in Debt Have Formed a Union to Fight Back

The Debt Collective is urging President-elect Biden to cancel all student debt "because it’s the moral thing to do.”

zimmytws via Getty Images

By Eve Ottenberg, Truthout 

The Debt Collective is urging President-elect Biden to cancel all student debt “because it’s the moral thing to do.”

In November, Pennsylvania permitted the resumption of utility shutoffs during the pandemic. In advance, the local Debt Collective, which helps people dispute their debts and fight back against predatory fees, protested. The group helped organize a gathering of between 20 and 30 protesters in Philadelphia to demand the moratorium continue. “We are tired of this,” Pennsylvania Debt Collective organizer Lauren Horner told CBS. “We are tired of the greed displayed by these organizations.” Horner was referring to the Philadelphia Gas Works, the PECO Energy Company, and to what some in the Debt Collective regard as the negligence of the Public Utility Commission.

The Pennsylvania Debt Collective had some wins: for households whose incomes fall within 300 percent of the poverty level, or $78,600 per year for a family of four, the moratorium still holds. On January 4, the Debt Collective and other community organizations will protest outside Biden headquarters in Philadelphia, demanding an end to all federal student loan debt. These groups want the debt cancelled on day one of his presidency. As with the utility shut off, the Pennsylvania Debt Collective has been very active around this issue.

Unpaid utility bills have long burdened American families. The U.S. has become a nation of debtors since the 1970s, people yoked into serfdom by educational or medical debt or into jails by cash bail, fines and fees. And then there are the millions who live month to month, on their credit cards, racking up charges for necessities like food and utilities, which they may never be able to repay.

Now also, during the COVID-19 pandemic, renters have gone into debt and face eviction. “I am currently working on an anti-eviction tool, eviction defense,” Debt Collective organizer and national member Dawn Lueck told Truthout. “We’re in a coalition. I’m just working on the tool side, to get it into people’s hands. There’ll be a massive eviction wave on January 31 when moratoriums expire, so we’re trying to get this tool ready.”

Lueck says that the tool is an online form that takes a tenant through the questions that need to be answered to deal with an eviction notice. It generates all the necessary forms. Some jurisdictions like Los Angeles require a fee to apply for an eviction waiver, and the tool helps the user see if they are eligible for an eviction waiver before they apply and pay the fee. “We’re in a coalition connected to tenant unions,” Lueck says, “so this tool currently for L.A. will later be expanded to other cities — we hope. Fingers crossed, we can scale this through California and then maybe nationwide.”

Another huge reservoir of financial insecurity is medical debt, which is the number one cause of U.S. bankruptcies — 66.5 percent of them. Before the pandemic, medical debt was roughly $81 billion. Student loan debt stands at $1.7 trillion. And those too poor to pay their debts to the criminal court system are sometimes locked up in jail.



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