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Debt Charity Rolling Jubilee Says it’s Time to Organize

The Rolling Jubilee has been very successful at taking donations and using them to buy up and forgive debts. But the organizers say the problem is too big to be solved by charity, so they are moving on to teaching debtors to help themselves. GRAPHIC by Strike Debt.
The Rolling Jubilee has been very successful at taking donations and using them to buy up and forgive debts. But the organizers say the problem is too big to be solved by charity, so they are moving on to teaching debtors to help themselves. GRAPHIC by Strike Debt.
December 30, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After an astonishingly successful run - buying up and forgiving debt - the Rolling Jubilee has said it is time to do more: organizing debtors to speak up for themselves. The jubilee was described as a "bailout by the people, for the people," collecting donations to buy heavily discounted medical debts that creditors were pushing off their books.

Aaron Smith is an activist with Strike Debt, the Jubilee's parent organization. He said they managed to purchase a little short of $15 million in debt with about $400,000 in donations, stopping countless harassing phone calls.

"Instead of the debt buyers buying this debt for pennies on the dollar and repackaging it off to debt collectors who use threats and intimidation, we buy it. Then we just send the people a letter that says you don't have to worry about this debt any more, and have a nice day," Smith explained.

Smith stressed that charity is no solution, which is why they are moving on to what he describes as a bigger and more important project: organizing debtors to demand better terms.

On Strike Debt's website is a manual to help debtors fight back. For one thing, Smith said, many debt collectors don't have the documentation they need to legally demand payment. So, Strike Debt has written a simple form to challenge the debt and maybe walk away for nothing.

Lenders argue that paying a debt is a moral obligation, a sign of good character. But Smith pointed out that banks and corporations constantly buy and sell debt for pennies on the dollar. Why shouldn't ordinary people? He said arming debtors with that knowledge is more important than buying up medical bills.

"You are much more likely to say, 'There's no way I'm going to pay a hundred cents, there's no way I'm going to pay fifty cents. I'm going to pay what I feel like I can pay, and not a penny more, and you're gonna take it,'" he said.

Smith and the others with the Rolling Jubilee worked without pay. All the donations went to buy debt or pay legal or paperwork costs, he said, adding that the public reaction was intense from the moment they started.

"We thought we would get to about $50,000 within a few months and that would let us buy about $1 million worth of debt," Smith recalled. "We ended up raising $50,000 in one day."

More information is available at www.rollingjubilee.org and www.strikedebt.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV