Here's how student debt could be redefined by the nation's first debtors' union. Democracy might just get rescued in the process.

Here's how student debt could be redefined by the nation's first debtors' union. Democracy might just get rescued in the process.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
  • Astra Taylor, founder of the Debt Collective, told Insider student debt is threatening democracy.
  • She said that after the Civil War, debt was used to wield power over marginalized communities.
  • Biden is "playing with fire" not following through on his promise to cancel student debt, she said.

Debt is all-American, Astra Taylor says. And she doesn't mean that in a good way.

Taylor, who founded the Debt Collective, which calls for the cancellation of all forms of debt, namechecks Thomas Jefferson as a founding father of how we understand debt today.

In the early 1880s, he wrote in a letter that debt should be used as a tool to control Indigenous people "because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands." This idea has "carried over through the 20th century," Taylor said, and she's made it her mission to end in the 21st. Our relationship with debt can be all-American in a different - and better - way, she said in an interview with Insider.

Her organization is the country's first membership-based union for debtors and allies, and she said it's a necessary step for true democracy to finally emerge in the US. She's offering her help to President Joe Biden, even drafting an executive order she wants President Joe Biden to sign to cancel student debt for all borrowers.

Even if he can cancel all student debt by simply signing a piece of paper, Taylor said it wouldn't be enough - all debt in the country has to be erased so borrowers are no longer controlled by money they will never be able to pay off.


Here's how student debt could be redefined by the nation's first debtors' union. Democracy might just get rescued in the process.
Founder of the Debt Collective, Astra Taylor. Astra Taylor

"I think it's really important to understand that relationships of credit and debt are always political," Taylor said. "It's a power relationship masquerading as a relationship of equality," adding that it's time for Americans to move beyond that dynamic.

Many Americans who hold student debt fear they will never be able to pay it off before dying, as Insider previously reported, and given that multiple left-leaning studies have shown that debt cancellation would stimulate the economy by freeing up money for borrowers to spend elsewhere, Taylor said there's no reason why Biden should not act on the opportunity.

The roots of debt and democracy

As Taylor explained in an opinion piece for The New York Times last week, the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War had another name among formerly enslaved people: the Jubilee. But although slavery was abolished, debt quickly took its place in the form of "sharecropping," which served as a tool to control marginalized communities and allow white landlords "generations of exploitable labor."

This kind of coercion through debt mutated but never went away, Taylor said, citing predatory lending and redlining, or the practice of housing discrimination based on race which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found evidence of this year. Lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren argue that student-loan servicers are currently taking advantage of borrowers in a similar way.

Taylor said the economic recovery Biden touts does not reflect the disproportionate debt burden on minority communities. For example, upon graduation, Black student debt borrowers typically owe 50% more than white borrowers. Four years later, Black borrowers owe 100% more, according to 36 civil rights organizations.


The Debt Collective's work to ensure debtor's remain politically independent will help eliminate the disproportionate burden of debt, and, as Taylor put it, "revive the Jubilee." Taylor's ideas are intersecting more and more with the mainstream. For example, this week Bloomberg's Odd Lots podcast interviewed "independent renegade economist" Steve Keen, who called for a "modern Jubilee."

Biden is 'playing with fire' on debt cancellation

During his campaign, Biden promised to immediately cancel $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers, but he has not yet fulfilled that promise and has not commented on if, or when, he will follow through. Taylor told Insider that there are "tremendous risks" accompanied with not delivering on debt cancellation.

"They're playing with fire," Taylor said. "To break this promise they fully have the ability legally to do is just so dangerous."

Taylor argues that instead of investing in debt collection, Biden should invest in free education. Plus, she says, eliminating debt would allow people to invest in other things, like housing.

The Education Department has so far cancelled some debt for certain groups of people, but Americans continue to hold $1.7 billion in student debt.


Biden promised he would cancel student debt, Taylor said. "Why would you risk all of the disappointment and bad faith that will result from not meeting the moment?"