Debt Resisters'
Operations Manual

Malav Kanuga, Series Editor
(PM Press)
  • The median annual earnings for a white male in this country is around $45,000. For a Latina woman, it is $22,600
  • Almost 15% of the people in the United States are being pursued by debt collectors. This is double the figure from ten years ago.
  • reported that in 2012, taxpayers subsidized banks to the tune of $83,000,000,000.
  • According to the Wall Street Journal, in at least a third of U. S. states, being in debt can now land you in jail. The authors of Debt Resisters' Operations Manual link it to "the criminalization of immigration, as well as racial and ethnic profiling."
  • According to the ACLU, a man in Spokane, Washington was incarcerated for two weeks for failing to pay $60 worth of "legal financial obligations." (LFOs). His jail stay, meanwhile, cost Spokane County over $1,500.
  • The Consumer Federation reveals that CCOs --- Check-Cashing Operations --- charge over 4% to cash a check which, for someone making $500 a week, works out to over $1,000 a year. Most people using this service are known as the "unbanked," which represents over 9,000,000 households in the U. S.
  • Even more expensive are overseas transfers of money. Consumers International reports that "Immigrants hoping to send money outside of the United States may lose as much as 20% of the amount in the process."
  • The Center for Responsible Lending tells us that auto-title loans, permitted in nineteen of the fifty states, can --- when annualized --- cost almost 900%. One of these companies, LoanMax, inveigled Al Sharpton to do a television commercial for them. A typical loan will cost 360% APR. If you borrow $400, in thirty days, you will owe $520. If you renew your loan, after thirty more days it will cost at least $640. CRL states that "title loans are renewed on average eight times per customer." Therefore, within a typical time frame," you may end up owing nearly three and a half times what you originally borrowed."
For more information on this last item, an online site can be found at --- where the first item you'll run into states unequivocally,

    Car title loans are short-term, high-interest loans secured by the title of a used vehicle. While car title lenders market their product as a way for families to overcome a financial emergency, more often than not those families are driven deeper into an endless cycle of debt.

§   §   §

The Debt Resisters' Operations Manual is crammed with information like this. Most telling, it delves into the psychology of poverty and debt, a societal point-of-view that "debtors have no one to blame but themselves for getting into this situation" and that "to not to pay one's debts is an act of blasphemy, shame, and dishonor."

    To default is to expose one's callous disregard for all that is decent.

The authors state that debt distorts our view of others and ourselves, "not only is a person's word on the line, but also their value as a human being." The debtor is seen as "subordinate" or as of "less value than a non-debtor." Yet we often ignore the fact that we are part of a system where debt is encouraged, dandled in front of us.

One of the supreme ironies of the last half-century is that those who were unable to borrow because of their supposed lesser status have now became eligible for credit and thus entangled in the subprime mortgage collapse. Further, when "people of color finally got access to credit through legislative reforms, the lending was often predatory in nature."

And, in contrast to viewing debt as "the consequence of financially irresponsible individuals," Demos reports that "forty percent of American households use credit cards to cover basic living costs" (rent, food, utilities) and medical expenses.

Debt runs our lives and even our work. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, almost 60% of employers look at one's credit standing in decisions about who to hire although, as we all know, credit reports are arbitrary, often filled with inaccurate if not fanciful information. It's a "system of surveillance and control" known as "consumer reporting."

§   §   §

The more one looks into this manual, leafing through chapters on credit cards, medical bills, student loans, mortgages and tax debt --- the more tangled, unjust, and dreary it all becomes. I found myself skipping ahead to chapters where we might be able to get some relief, anything to get us out from under these dratted sharks.

For there have been times in all our lives --- and the lives of friends --- where debt just overwhelms us, seems monstrous, unfair, so that we, at times, find ourselves thinking of skipping town, going underground, changing our names, taking bankruptcy, getting the hell out --- or just going mad. (This last is not much help, even if you are on Medicare. For the certifiably looney, you are allocated no more than thirty days of talk therapy, and no more than a few months of heavy medication.)

§   §   §

The key truth in this book is that we are all bound like Prometheus to a system that feeds on debt, even though we all know that it only creates temporary relief: a glass of wine, a fancy dinner, a trip to Bermuda (all put on our Visa card, thinking well, this is just for now, I'll figure out a way to pay it off later, when our ship comes in. If it doesn't sink.)

But even the chapter entitled "Strategies for Survival" offers little real hope. Medical problems? "Take care of your health by exercising, eating well, washing your hands." Tell that to someone who has just had a heart attack, developed diabetes, come down with hepatitis-C. With medical problems, we are advised to go to a free clinic, but "the biggest problem with free clinics is that they are run almost entirely by volunteers and the demand for these clinics often outweighs the staff resources ... be prepared to wait for a very long time."

No place to live? The three page directive here on squatting states that it is "a widely employed practice with a rich history." In the United States, at this moment, there are "five times as many vacant homes as there are homeless people." But to squat can be nerve-wracking. One is advised to find a place in a neighborhood with other squatters. And it is best to choose a house or apartment that has been taken over by the city government. "Your chances of holding the building are greater if it's been seized by the city, while a private owner can evict you fairly easily."

The editors suggest checking out a how-to-squat on-line guide at which includes some sensible suggestions on, say, forming a squat-group. Although one will probably have to include some rather doughty anarchistic souls, this blog suggests that at the very least one should lay out everything ahead of time.

    Here are house rules suggested if you plan to form a squatter's association:
    • No hard drugs: they can be used as a pretext to throw everyone out of the building.
    • No violence.
    • No stealing.
    • Breaking any of these first three rules can get you thrown out of the squat, though everyone should remember that squatters have no legal right to throw anyone out or evict them.

Food? We include with this a link from "Living on the Margins of the Debt System" ... one of the best parts of "Strategies for Survival."

Despite all this, the Manual offers a somewhat discouraging picture of the trap that you and I and most of our friends find ourselves in: too much debt, and too little information for dealing with it. The penultimate pages of the introduction encapsulates it thus:

    The criminal justice system is seeing a dramatic rise in the number of indigent, or poor, individuals who are incarcerated because of their debt ... Once in the criminal justice system, people are burdened with more fees that they cannot pay, driving them further into debt. Prisons are continually filled with impoverished people, giving life to a cycle of poverty and imprisonment that is hard to escape.

--- Lolita Lark
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