The United States is burdened with debt and death. Let’s fight inequality to stop this crisis.


When the Biden administration announced its debt relief plan in late August, the time was right. According to the Hebrew calendar, this last year, which ended on September 25, was the Shemitah year, a year in which debts are forgiven. In the Bible, debt cancellation is just one of the Jubilee Laws, which includes freeing slaves, feeding the poor, paying fair wages, and conserving and protecting overused lands. As a biblical scholar and pastor, I am often struck by the moral logic behind these laws. Indeed, many ancient societies understood that the jubilee was not just a compassionate response to unequal economic conditions, but a necessary step in not caving in under the weight of inequality. In their view, debt and injustice writ large were the cause of two forms of death: economic and spiritual death of a society, and avoidable individual death among its people.

In the United States, debt has reached new heights, including $1.6 trillion student debt, up to 100 percent since 2010. Nearly half of these student borrowers owe less than $20,000, so the White House’s announcement to waive $10,000 for those earning less than $125,000 (up to $250,000 for a household) and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients is significant. It comes down to the cancelation up to 20 million loans. But responses to the new measure were divided – many celebrated and asked for morewhile others raised the alarm about whether we could afford it as nation and challenged it.

In fact, since the time of the announcement, six Republican-led states are in the process of to chase administration, saying President Biden overstepped executive powers with the debt relief package. In response, the Biden administration reduced eligibility requirements, weeding out borrowers whose federal loans belonged to private banks and were the subject of lawsuits. NPR describe the impact of such a reversal: “People who took out Perkins loans and federal loans for family education, the mainstay of the federal student loan program until 2010, may no longer be eligible for the remission .”

The rationale for gutting the loan forgiveness program follows the same tired arguments about who “deserves” to have their debt forgiven, pitting struggling people against one another. A particularly controversial statement about this came from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who claimed, “It is patently unfair to burden hard-working Americans with the debt of those who have chosen to go to university.

In reality, the debate between “deserving” and “unworthy” is a sleight of hand useful to the rich and the powerful. It conceals the structural nature of the debt and its role in the hyper-invoicing of inequalities. Today nearly 40 percent of the country lives in poverty or is one $400 emergency away from economic ruin and personal debt which now totals nearly $16 trillion is largely to blame. After all, canceling the debt and putting more money in the pockets of ordinary people who will spend it on things like food and household items is both a moral policy and good economy. So when narratives of scarcity, affordability, and merit are invoked to thwart debt cancellation, we must approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In recent weeks politicians have cried scarcity, complained that we cannot afford to cancel even a modest amount of debt, and have spent time and resources reversing the progress the administration has made. . But how can that be the case when the Pentagon has received funding increases every year for the past decade (at an all-time high $782 billion for 2022 – more than he even asked for) and the Federal Reserve bailed out Wall Street in the early days of the pandemic for almost as much as it would cost to cancel all student debt?

Additionally, Biden’s student loan plan is small compared to other debts that have been written off over the past five years with very little opposition, including $659 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans which mostly went to wealthy business owners during the pandemic and $1.7 trillion in taxes owed by wealthy corporations as part of Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. Scarcity itself is a myth, only seeming to exist as an insurmountable problem when the needs of the poor are taken into consideration.

On the contrary, it is not the cancellation of debt that the nation cannot afford – it is the worsening of inequality that is too costly. The Bible is a good reference on this subject. Deuteronomy 15 talks about canceling the loans obtained to survive in the interest of a healthy society, and you only have to look at the median income of people with a university degree compared to those who do not to see that the loans students are indeed a matter of survival. The biblical tradition of debt relief is the centerpiece of God’s call to abolish poverty, and debt cancellation is understood to be necessary when poverty proliferates amid plenty and survival becomes a matter of concern.

Our elected officials would do well to learn the lessons of the book to which they so often like to refer. Rather than tackling debt relief, they could build on progress on student debt to adopt a more comprehensive list of jubilee policies that lift everyone near the bottom. With regard to education, this could include broader debt cancellation, but also other structural changes such as free, quality and diverse education, from kindergarten to university. There is no reason to pit loan cancellation against reforms that make education truly accessible to all. After all, if we value today’s youth and the nation’s future, we need both.

But instead of pursuing the divine mandate of jubilee, we are witnessing a society burdened with debt and death. The most recent numbers are dire in the extreme: Along with rising debt, life expectancy in the United States has stagnated for two decades and in 2015 it actually began to decline in a way not seen in modern history. The country’s disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic only accelerated this trend and revealed a systemic failure in our healthcare system – in comparison, our peer countries saw only a third of the decline in life expectancy and then saw an increase as they adopted more effective COVID-19 responses.

According to a report 2022 produced by the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair alongside the Reverend Dr. William Barber), poor and low-income US counties have seen death rates twice as high as wealthier ones, and at different phases of the pandemic, their death rates were up to five times higher. This happened in part because of the lack of health care for tens of millions of people across the country. In the worst public health crisis in a century, Congress failed to expand Medical help, leaving millions of people in the states that have suffered the greatest decline in health outcomes without access to affordable health care. In fact, even as overall health and life expectancy were down, health care company profits were up.

Tied to the issue of our reduced life expectancy is the growing crisis of what some call “dead of despair” — from suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism. As I traveled the country, I met families of small farmers whose suicide rate is increasing because they are in debt. I also met the friends and spouses of some of the 20 veterans who commit suicide every day, more than those killed on active duty on the front lines of our most recent wars. But the framework of the “deaths of despair” is often misleading. Even in the case of suicides and overdoses, much of what drives these deaths is negligence and outright injustice.

Aaron Scott, co-founder of Chaplains on the harbor, an organization committed to serving the poor on rural coastal Washington state, buried dozens of poor and homeless members who died of drug overdoses and suicide. He also had to bury his grandfather after committing suicide. Scott recently explained to me, “When I think of my grandfather’s suicide, even though he was personally in despair, the reason he died is because he couldn’t access mental health care. to which my grandmother was trying to connect it. I have seen a number of egregious medical negligence deaths which the county’s conservative coroners refuse to classify as medical negligence due to the decedent’s poverty and history of intravenous drug use – so they are recorded as related deaths to drugs even though the hospital simply refused treatment.”

In New York, where I live, and where life expectancy has dropped three years from now in 2020, there is a mass grave of poor people on Hart Island, in the middle of Long Island Sound. There are countless other “potter’s fields” (also called “paupers’ graves”) across the country, yet few know the true brutality of these graveyards for the poor. More than a million people have been buried on Hart Island since the Civil War, including thousands of victims of epidemics like the 1918 flu, AIDS and COVID-19. These people are buried in unidentified graves, with 150 adults or 1,000 infants in one plot. And although some were called home when it was their time, many continue to die prematurely because they live in a society that neglects even their most basic needs. Yet dignity is denied them not only in life, but in death itself.

Indeed, the United States has become far too comfortable with poverty and death, and the consequence, unfortunately, is more of both. But if the news of our declining life expectancies is a most basic wake-up call, the recent action on student debt (if not completely undone) is a small taste of what it could look like. for everyone to have the right to live. This is what the Jubilee has always been about: preserving life and creating a more just and balanced society. Nothing less is required of us if we want the same today.

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