We Owe You Nothing is a series by The Debt Collective and Prism looking at four different kinds of major debt: student loan debt, medical debt, carceral debt, and renters’ debt. Our goal is to shift the narrative around debt and break the false idea that it is a personal, moral failure and that “easy” money management advice and a bootstrap mentality are the only solutions to financial freedom. The pieces will uncover debt traps, highlight collective organizing tactics, and celebrate the growing debt abolition movement. As The Debt Collective says, “Alone our debts are a burden, but together they make us powerful.” Read the complete series here.
It seems simple: make wise money management decisions, and it’ll yield financial stability. Save more than you spend. Avoid taking on debt for college by applying for scholarships. Bypass the high cost of rent by moving back home with your parents. Be a model citizen, and don’t get arrested because posting bail will be expensive. Wait until you have some savings to start a family too. And whatever you do, don’t take on too much credit card debt.
These pieces of advice miss a core component of late-stage capitalism: debt entrapment.
Not everyone can secure scholarships for college because the standardized testing barrier is rooted in white supremacy. Some people don’t have parents to move back home to, and others live in heavily policed neighborhoods where the prison-industrial complex traps them and their loved ones in exorbitant fines and fees. And when it comes to starting a family, the number of people lacking access to reproductive rights continues to grow.
We’re taught to avoid financial landmines so we won’t ask the question: why am I walking on a minefield? How are working-class people supposed to navigate an uptick in the cost of living coupled with a divestment in social services? Combine these landmines with stagnating wages, and millions of people—particularly and disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and women of color and their families—are borrowing money just to make ends meet. Debt is unrelenting because it compounds already existing inequalities and funnels wealth into the hands of creditors. The result? Debt has become yet another means for the rich to get richer; our student debt, medical debt, and ballooning credit card balances are someone else’s assets.
But debtors across the country are fighting back. We have been telling our stories, unionizing, and demanding debt cancellation. In this Debt Collective x Prism series, four other borrowers and I will follow the money. From carceral debt to renter’s debt, each piece will examine debt traps, highlight organizing tactics, and celebrate the growing debt abolition movement to use debt as a means to demand the right to free health care and housing for all. If debt feels punishing, shameful, and isolating, that’s because capitalism is structured to engender those feelings. Together, we can change that narrative. As we say at the Debt Collective, “Alone our debts are a burden, but together they make us powerful.”