Student Debt Crisis: It’s Time for a Jubilee

Student Debt Crisis: It’s Time for a Jubilee

Mark Engler: Student Debt Crisis – It’s Time for a Jubilee

Organizations that usually demand cancellation of the crippling debts owed by impoverished countries in the global South are now calling for debt forgiveness for a different group of borrowers: U.S. students.

With soaring tuition, poor job prospects, and loans that take decades to pay off, there’s no question that students need a year of jubilee. Yet, the idea that groups accustomed to running international solidarity campaigns have taken up their cause is an unexpected twist.

I’ve always liked the Jubilee debt campaign. For a couple of decades now, it has been an impressive and truly international drive, with strong leadership from the global South. In this country, the Jubilee USA Network has done a great job doing interfaith organizing and bringing in non-religious allies as well. Also, importantly, the campaign has been winning.

One of the great accomplishments of the global justice movement that exploded internationally around the year 2000 was to convince the world that onerous debts owed by poor countries were an unjust and prohibitive barrier to sustainable development. In many cases such debts were accumulated by dictators that had since been overthrown; moreover, developing countries had already paid back more than the original amounts of the loans. Belief in the injustice of this, as well as the idea that wealthy creditor countries and international financial institutions should cancel debts, represented radical fringe ideas in the first half of the 1990s. But Jubilee folks were dogged. They lobbied, educated, and protested. I remember many thousands of people turning out for a Jubilee march in Seattle, just before the main day of action against the World Trade Organization’s 1999 ministerial meeting. It was a rainy night, and it would have been easy to stay home; instead the packed protest foreshadowed what would become a historic week of action.

Pundits often accuse social movements–especially ones driven by highly visible protests–of emerging from nowhere and then disappearing without impact. Sometimes it is true that momentum-driven movements have short life cycles. But just as often, a “here today, gone tomorrow” analysis reflects the ignorance of a mainstream media commentator more than anything else. If you don’t bother to follow social movements until they’re too loud to ignore, and then you promptly resume disregarding them once they’re no longer making top headlines, it’s no surprise that you’ll miss the precedents and the legacies. “Flash in the pan” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the case of globalization activism, this was a common charge. But Jubilee’s steady track record provides a critical counterpoint. I tracked the Jubilee movement through some of its major wins of the past decade, and I responded to critics on the left who misread some victories as defeats. When G8 leaders signed a breakthrough debt relief agreement at the 2005 Gleneagles conference, Rebecca Solnit also wrote a nice essay crediting the Jubilee movement for its persistence:

In ’98, I had gone to Birmingham to hang out with Reclaim the Streets (RTS), the raucous, wildly creative British movement that shifted the tone and tactics of direct action in many parts of the world and demonstrated early the power of the Internet for creating simultaneous demonstrations in many countries. At the same moment, Jubilee 2000 (now Jubilee Research) formed a vast human chain around the G8 and much of central Birmingham. RTS condemned the G8’s very existence; Jubilee 2000 asked it for something specific. At the time, I have to admit, the jubilee group made little impression on me, and their “Cancel the Debt” message seemed hopeful but remote.

Remote then, it has arrived now, as both a transnational awareness of the causes and costs of the loans forced on poor nations and as the recent debt cancellations. It is impressive to measure the migration of the idea of debt cancellation (and so, of the rich world’s role in creating poverty) as it traveled from outside the walls of Birmingham into Gleneagles to become the unavoidable topic. No less impressive is the way the early champions of debt relief took up such a complex, unglamorous idea and stuck with it for so long- long enough to matter, long enough to change the world.

Since then, Jubilee has continued to make forward progress, highlighting the misdeeds of “vulture funds,” among other things.

The intriguing question now being raised is, can the campaign translate its past penchant for success on the international scene into debt cancellation for U.S. students?

Jubilee USA wrote recently about how it came upon student debt as a new area of focus:

As the debt crisis continues to spread from the Global South to the North, we began hearing increasingly from our regional chapters, faith communities and individual supporters that we must also address issues around debt and lending in the US. As we continue to work on international responsible lending and borrowing and on the impact of debts in the developing world, we also are making connections to student loans in the US. The sense of austerity that has wreaked havoc on the poorest is also challenging too many of us at home.

A variety of commentators have noted the Biblical precedent of having a “Year of Jubilee” for debtors, and they have argued that students would be worthy beneficiaries of such a break. Groups such as the Backbone Campaign and Roots Action have taken up the cause. And relief of student debt has been a popular demand within the youth-heavy Occupy movement.

In June, Jubilee activists pushed members of Congress to extend a low interest rate on student loans. The extension passed in early July, giving students at least a temporary reprieve from having rates double.

It’s still a long road to a serious program of debt cancellation for students. I suspect this fight will have to be waged largely under the radar and sustained for years if it is to prevail. But if there’s ground for confidence, it’s that Jubilee and its allies have done that before.