Debt is an age-old means of shaming and controlling poor people. The practice is so commonplace, we hardly notice it.
For many, going into debt is the only way to get an education, buy a home, or survive a medical emergency. Shaking off that debt can be impossible for those living on low-wage and insecure jobs, and those targeted by predatory lending. Still, many accept the story that debt is their fault.
Citizens of cities and even countries are shamed for their debt, and blame is used by those instituting emergency management to justify loss of self-rule, privatization of public services, and extraction of community wealth.
At this year’s Allied Media Conference in Detroit, Michigan, residents of the city and those of Puerto Rico gathered to compare notes on how debt and default have affected their regions. Both have experienced economic hardship, both are predominantly made up of people of color, and both are seeing debt used as an excuse for the selling off their common assets and to undermine their rights to self-governance.
In Detroit, the loss of industrial jobs to low-wage regions, coupled with federally subsidized white flight has left the city with the costs of operating urban services that benefit the entire region without the tax base needed to pay for them.
The 2008 financial crisis hit the city—and its African American families in particular—especially hard. Residents had been targeted for subprime mortgages, which accounted for 68 percent of all the city’s mortgages in 2005, compared to 24 percent nationwide, reported the the Detroit News. Today, more than three quarters of foreclosed homes financed through subprime lenders are in poor condition or tax foreclosed.
Shifting control to emergency management has resulted in reduced essential services to those already harmed by predatory economics. School buildings are disintegrating. Residents had their water shut off. Streetlights were shut off.
In Puerto Rico, investors took advantage of the territorial government’s high-yield, tax-exempt bonds. Wall Street reaped $900 million in fees from those bonds since 2000, Bloomberg News reported. Tax breaks for giant corporations attracted big players, until the incentives ran out and with them, the corporate jobs. One hundred and fifty schools were closed as a result of the crisis, and another 600 are on the chopping block. Puerto Rico has a poverty rate that is double that of Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
These neoliberal policies of privatization, extraction, corporate power, and austerity have undermined national economies in the Global South subjected to IMF and World Bank policies. Today, they are also being used on American and European communities.
Author and cognitive linguist George Lakoff describes two roles governments assume to maintain social control: the stern, punishing father, and the nurturing mother. What we need are strong peer relationships, sisterhood, brotherhood, and solidarity.
In today’s context, the stern father metaphor takes the form of authoritarianism, fundamentalism, shame, and blame. As practiced by the corporate-friendly leadership of the Democratic Party, the nurturing mother placates the powerless with corporate bailouts and a tattered social safety net to allow for the continued extraction of a community’s wealth.
Both of these parent-child metaphors are built on powerful—usually white, male—decision makers who are closely linked to corporate power and manage the affairs of a powerless citizenry. Neither offers a path to liberation.
Instead of either of these parent-child relationships, what we need are strong peer relationships, sisterhood, brotherhood, and solidarity. At the opening ceremony at the Allied Media Conference, activist, author, and doula Adrienne Maree Brown called on those gathered to “wage love.”
Instead of using debt to punish communities of color and the poor and justify the selling off of community assets, instead of emergency powers that take away self-rule, we should invest in all communities and defend our civic and natural legacies for future generations of all races.
Those who gathered for the conference in Detroit showed what waging love looks like: supporting one another in rejecting second-class citizenship and in calling instead for government to serve the needs of their citizens and to invest in a future that will work for all people.