PHILADELPHIA—At 6 P.M. on Monday, January 4, just two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, activists gathered at the Biden campaign headquarters in Philadelphia to demand that he cancel all federal student loan debt on day one of his presidency. As the Mad Beatz Philly drumline played, Lauren Horner, an organizer with the Debt Collective, began the protest by leading rally-goers in a chant, “Philly, do you hear me? Biden owes this city!”
Philadelphia, which some believe delivered the election for Biden, is also the poorest big city in the country. In 2019, the city’s poverty rate was slightly over 23 percent, but organizers imagine that it’s now even higher, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent mass unemployment. A quarter of all Philadelphians have student debt, and these borrowers owe an average of $37,468. While student debt affects Philadelphians at all income levels, the poorest residents are hit hardest—borrowers in lower-income zip codes are more likely to be severely delinquent on their loans. These zip codes also have higher percentages of Black and Latino residents, making the existing racial wealth gap even more extreme.
Organizers with the Debt Collective, along with Black Lives Matter Philly, Philly Democratic Socialists of America, Philly Boricuas and other organizations, attempted to weave a thread between student debt and racism, colonialism and police brutality. (Unrelated to the protest, police officers arrested a passerby just as the event was starting, and attempted to arrest a second person but were stopped by rally attendees.)
Ewan Johnson, a 24-year-old organizer with the Black and Brown Coalition of Philadelphia, says he has around $190,000 in student debt. “Student debt disproportionately affects Black and brown people, particularly in Philadelphia,” he told In These Times. “How are we supposed to feel like somebody doesn’t have their foot on our necks?” The majority of his loans are in his mother’s name, who had only paid off her own student loans from an unfinished degree a few months prior to taking out Parent PLUS loans for Johnson. He graduated from college last year, becoming the first person in his family to do so.
Johnson believes that his “mountain of debt” will hold him back. “There’s no way I can advance and be self-sufficient with this much debt. I live at home and I don’t see a way for me not to live at home. The way that [my debt] has to be paid off is just not livable.” If Johnson didn’t have student debt, he told In These Times that he would pursue a law degree, live on his own, and help out his mother. But as it stands now, he’s not able to make significant purchases or follow any big dreams—his monthly payments are just too high. Examples like Johnson’s are why some economists argue that debt cancellation would provide an economic stimulus.
Johnson is not alone: there are nearly 45 million student debt holders in the United States, translating to roughly 1 in 8 Americans, with loans totalling more than $1.7 trillion. While the CARES Act temporarily froze federal student loan payments and interest accrual, this forbearance is set to end February 1st. With more than 20 million jobs lost since the start of the pandemic—losses at a level not seen since the Great Depression—organizers believe that millions of people will still be unable to pay their debts. But they are hoping to turn an inability to pay into a choice not to pay.
At the rally, Debt Collective organizers wore orange masks that read “DEBT STRIKE” as attendees chanted “can’t pay, won’t pay!” The Debt Collective has helped debtors go “on strike” from paying their loans—to politicize the fact that 1 million people default on their loans every year and that the loans are unjust to begin with.
Organizer Jason Wozniak told In These Times that the Debt Collective will be formally launching a debtors’ union by late spring in order to “build debtor power through collective organization, to link debtors across the country. Part of the problem with debt is that we’re often isolated and we don’t have a common gathering area or network to build power with.” Members will pay dues like in any other union, which will go to fund protests, campaigns, debt clinics, training for members and staff.
The nascent union’s demands are much larger than just the cancellation of student debt—organizers are also working on campaigns related to medical debt, rental debt, and even municipal debt, which is often used to fund public works like roads, parks, and other infrastructure. Debt Collective isn’t just fighting to cancel debt, they’re fighting to end it completely, by supporting social programs like College for All and Medicare for All, popularized by Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president.
Wozniak told In These Times that people “take out debts just to survive. Wages are stagnant and there’s no public services because they’ve been hollowed out through 40-plus years of neoliberalism, and so the only way people get by is through debt.”
While Joe Biden may not be able to implement programs like free college and healthcare without the support of Congress (not to mention mass movements in the streets), some lawmakers say he would be able to wipe away all federal student loan debt by executive order as soon as he takes office. Both Johnson and Wozniak don’t believe Biden has any plans to do so—after all, the President-elect has said as much; instead he supports passing legislation to forgive up to $10,000 and eliminate all student debt for people who make less than $125,000 a year. Wozniak told In These Times that “Joe Biden will do as little as possible to help the working class, and the only way he will do anything is if there is power that makes him do it.”
The Debt Collective’s rally in Philadelphia may have been the first step to develop the type of movement to do just that—one that can build enough power to win debt forgiveness for working people and help transform the economy.