The Rolling Jubilee’s Ingenious Plan to Cancel Personal Debt

    According to the Bible (Leviticus 25:10), every 50th year – known as the Jubilee year – is sacred: “It is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families.”

    Recently, the Rolling Jubilee, a present-day incarnation of the ancient Jubilee concept, held a variety show and online telethon – a celebration – to help raise funds to buy distressed consumer debt from lenders in order to cancel those debts and hopefully set some modern debt slaves free.

    The Rolling Jubilee is a nonprofit creation of Strike Debt, a movement spawned from the 2011 Occupy Movement that believes that people should not go into debt for basic necessities, nor be enslaved by a debt collection system that purchases delinquent obligations at a steep discount and then hounds debtors for full repayment.

    Current Debt System is Oppressive

    According to Strike Debt organizer David Rees, the system is widespread and oppressive: “76 percent of American households are in debt and 15 percent are being pursued by a debt collector.” Conversely, it is estimated that after the financial crash, big banks were bailed out to the tune of $4.7 trillion by the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve.

    In pointing out the disparity between those who got help after the economy’s meltdown – the 1 percent – and those who did not – the rest of us – Rees also makes the case for a new Jubilee: “We bailed out the banks, and in return they turned their backs on us. It’s time for a bailout of the people, by the people.”

    As part of a people’s bailout, Rolling Jubilee is planning to buy charged-off debt, starting with medical debt, from lending institutions, just as debt collectors do, for pennies on the dollar. But instead of attempting to collect the debts it purchases, its aim is to simply abolish them.

    Since the November 15 event, the organization has raised more than $350,000, enough money to abolish over $7 million in debt. In a recent test run, the Rolling Jubilee spent $500 to purchase $14,000 worth of outstanding loans and then pardoned the debtors.

    Strike Debt is also hoping that the Rolling Jubilee will help build a broader movement of debt resistance, with the ultimate goal of creating a more beneficial economy for the 99 percent. In September, it published the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, a practical advice and resource guide for Americans struggling under the weight of unmanageable consumer, housing, medical and/or student debt.

    Banks Could Gum Up the Movement

    One potential stumbling block in the way of Strike Debt’s strategy is non-cooperation from banks. The very concept that debts can be bought and then canceled  creates a “moral hazard,” which, according to some, delegitimizes the belief that every person should pay back what he owes. Based on that credo, a lender may refuse to sell loans to anyone who doesn’t agree to seek collection – something that clearly is not Strike Debt’s intention.

    In fact, a purchaser of a debt can legally do anything he wants with it – including deep-sixing it if he so chooses. Also a lender who is being paid by the Rolling Jubilee for a charged-off debt at the same discount it would be sold to a debt collection agency, will have a hard time justifying withholding it from sale for purely philosophical reasons – not to mention having to explain the irony of a bailed-out bank cringing at the idea of a bailed-out consumer.

    Strike Debt’s November 15 date was not chosen at random – it marks the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Movement’s eviction from New York’s Zuccotti Park, where the original Occupy Wall Street demonstrators first set up camp to challenge the nation’s economic status quo.

    Religious Americans often cite the wisdom of the Bible as a guide to how we should conduct our affairs in contemporary society. Perhaps a return to the Jubilee would go a long way in proving them right.


    Al Krulick
    Staff Writer

    Al is an award-winning journalist with dozens of years of writing experience. He served as a drama critic, high school teacher, arts administrator, theatrical producer and director. He also dabbled in politics, running twice for a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives for Florida. Al is a Certified Debt Specialist with the International Association of Professional Debt Arbitrators and specializes in real estate, credit and bankruptcy advice.

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