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Debt | Occupied Stories - Part 2

Tag Archive | "debt"

Debt To Burn

Last Sunday I took the L train out to East River State Park, a beautiful riverside park in the ultra-gentrified waterfront of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, wrapped by new luxury condos and a stunning view of Manhattan across the river, about 100 people gathered to make a statement against debt.

The action was organized by Strike Debt, a group of occupiers who are organizing a campaign that specifically targets debt and its impact on the 99%. This was their inaugural action; a symbolic first step to building a union of debtors and mounting an out-right debt refusal movement.

After a meeting about the group’s #S17 plan, we gathered in a half circle a few yards from the water and lay down banners that declared “SILENCE = DEBT” and featured images of the word DEBT alight in a blaze.

People came up and told their debt stories and then using an empty coffee can (in the style of the draft burnings during the Vietnam War), they burned their statements and collections notices. It was a symbolic act, but also strangely powerful. Students told stories of taking out loans in pursuit of a degree and a job, only to find themselves in a dead-end and underwater. A young woman told about having to choose between going to the doctor and being financially stable and taking on thousands of dollars of debt after getting sick. Some had mortgages that were underwater, some burned credit card bills.

The power of this action didn’t come from the burning itself,  but from the telling of those stories. Society tells us that debt is shameful and that defaulting on credit is a moral outrage. This unspoken cultural rule is an important part of the mechanisms that keep us all indebted. It was truly inspiring to watch people confront this stigma head-on, and release that cultural shame. It made me wish I had brought a credit bill to burn.

After the stories were told and statements were burned in the coffee can, we walked as a group out to the water’s edge, on a makeshift beach on the western side of the park. We pseudo-ceremoniously dumped the ashes of our debt into the East River, narrowly avoiding a “Big Lebowski” moment when the wind blew some of the ashes back onto the beach.  Then we did what occupy does best: we built community.

We continued sharing our stories and contacts with one another and talked about how to create a viable movement against debt. Oh, and we also ate cake.

Here a short video from the event:

-Danny Valdes-

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InDEBTed to Education

We’re all told when we’re in High School that going to college is what we have to do. You can’t get a better job if you don’t get higher schooling. That you don’t want to be a garbage man for the rest of your life. You can’t make money if you don’t go to school. So, we find a college, take out a loan, and go to school.

I was not so sure I wanted to go to school though. I had (and technically still do have) a lot of issues I needed to sort though. Trying to manage my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), clinical depression, manic states, anxiety, and any other number of things. School was the last thing on my mind. It didn’t help that I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. All I knew was I loved my art classes.

So at some point I came to the conclusion I needed to go to art school. My parents were wary, but my art teacher and I assured them that there were ways to make money as an artist. This was before the Great Recession, as the economists call it.

Originally I was going to go to a local college, and just generalize in all sorts of art. Until I found Hallmark. It was, at the time, the number one photography school in the country. It has nothing to do with the cards though, bummer.

But I applied to go to the Hallmark Institute of Photography. What a mouthful. And I listened with rapt ears to everything they told me. That there was no such thing as a degree in photography, so what they could offer (a certificate of completion) was the best I could hope for. That $50,000 for ten months of schooling was worth it because it was like cramming two years into that ten months. That they were state-of-the-art (perhaps the only thing they didn’t lie about), and they would always help their alumni to find work.

Well, being the naive 17 year old I was at the time, I was sold. I signed the papers as soon as my portfolio was approved. That’s right, only 300 people at the time were accepted to attend each year. They were elitists, and I was on cloud nine for having been chosen.

Hallmark killed everything in me. Creativity meant nothing when it came to being a Hallmark Photographer. They were looking for a certain high-city look with the photographs their students produced, and I was not producing. Of course, this wasn’t all the teachers; just the ones that mattered. I am not a city girl. I live in the middle of nowhere out where the buses don’t run, and I prefer it that way

So even though I passed all my classes, and even though I went through hell to make it to the end, it was for nothing. I failed my initial portfolio review in which my artistic sense was torn apart by well-known photographers from outside the school brought in for that very purpose. But not to worry, there was always re-review! Which, I was told, was impossible to fail so long as you completed the list of corrections given to you.

So, I had three days to fix half of my portfolio. I don’t remember those three days at all, as it was murder on the depression, and between that and the meds I killed my memory.

What I do know is regardless of the efforts I put in, I still failed. The day before graduation, with no explanation, I was told I failed and I was to sign the papers saying I quit.

I told the dean of the college through tears that this wasn’t the end, I would be a photographer anyway. He agreed to meet with me a week later to review my portfolio in depth. He would later reveal that I probably should have passed, but he couldn’t reverse the decision.

In two years’ time I would find out that this dean had been cooking the books. All the money spent during my year at Hallmark, he had been swindling away our money to pay for things he wanted and possibly bribing people. He was being sued for two million dollars. As if I weren’t already upset that I couldn’t get a photography job because of the economy, and I could hardly pay the students loan when I DID have a job, now I learned that much of my student loan money had gone to lining the pockets of this man who couldn’t allow me to at least be considered a success and not a failure of the school.

I thought about starting a class-action lawsuit, but in the end I didn’t. I didn’t have the time, nor the energy. After all, I’m over $50,000 in debt, and working to pay it back is all I can do. And in this economy, in my area, that means you do your damnedest not to lose your job.

I was in and out of work from 2008 to 2010, enough so that my parents had to pay my loans for a while. I felt like a failure of a child, because they weren’t exactly swimming in money either. But even when I could get a job, it was usually in retail and all I could manage was the car loan I had. It was a horrible feeling.

I did finally manage to secure a job that allowed me to pay my own bills by myself, but I was later laid off. Thankfully rehired. But regardless of that, I’m still buried in debt. I’ve managed to bring it down by maybe $3,000, but under the 6% interest rates it’s not much. I’ll be paying them off until I’m about to retire at this rate.

I’d like to move out, get my own place. Go back to living on my own, being independent, and stop relying so much on my parents. But the only way I can survive with this debt is by living at home. And as I’ve gotten older (I’m 23 now), I’ve accumulated more and more stuff. And it doesn’t all fit in my one little bedroom very well. It’s a cramped lifestyle. But with this debt I’m fairly stuck.

I’d also like to have my own photo studio. Regardless of what Hallmark told me, I have continued to pursue photography. Even though I have to freelance, I do fairly well for myself. And I always pay my assistants well for their time, because it’s the right thing to do. But photography is a luxury and I don’t have enough of a client base yet for it to sustain its own studio.

Sad to say I’m thinking of going back to school, because these days you can’t get a job without the piece of paper I don’t have. It’d mean more debt, and a longer life sentence to it.

If I didn’t have educational debt, I might have a mortgage. Or a studio, and perhaps I’d be employing a couple other people to help. Or heck, I’d just plain have spending money to put back into the economy to help fix it. But I don’t. I pay over $400 a month to a bank for a loan that hasn’t gotten me very far at all. Over $400 that could be propelling me to a much more promising future.

I am the future of America, and my future says that I will be struggling to survive right up until the end. At this rate, I will pay off my loans just in time to retire and lack a nest egg, and probably lack social security. It’s not a pretty picture.

-S. Genier-

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Forced into Bankruptcy

I live in Canada, I am 50 and have been self-employed for most of my life. One day, in 2000, Revenue Canada (the Canadian IRS) contacted me asking why I had not filed an income tax return or, indeed, paid ANY income taxes for the previous 15 years. I did not have a good answer for them.

Long story short, by my own calculation I owed the government well over $75,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties. Over the next decade, I attempted to co-operate with them by getting up-to-date with tax filings. I even sent them a few thousand dollars here and there when I could afford it, but the situation was far from getting resolved. Plus I kept falling behind filing my tax returns.

This put me in a category known as “habitual non-filer,” and Revenue Canada doesn’t take kindly to us folk. Eventually they were successful at getting a judgement against me and garnisheeing my wages at 50 percent of net (after tax, I was forced to send 80 percent of my income directly to Revenue Canada). By this point the debt plus penalties had climbed to over $200,000.

This was one year ago, and my financial life went into a death spiral. Although my present income is good, I was supporting my husband through school and it was simply impossible to make ends meet. Plus I had probably about $30,000 in credit card debt, the payments on which I had to default on.

I pleaded with Revenue Canada to reduce the garnishment to a manageable level. They refused.

According to a trustee I spoke to, I should go bankrupt immediately. The hitch was, I would need to get completely up to date with my tax filings to do so. Since I could not afford to hire somebody to do this, I spent a good chunk of last summer filing 5 years’ worth of tax returns on my own behalf in a kind of desperate race to stop the garnishment and restore my paycheque.

Obviously I was never any good at filing tax returns. Especially the complicated self-employed ones. This was how I got into trouble in the first place! So it was not easy to face this challenge, but somehow I managed to do it. In that process, I discovered a lot about myself, which probably sounds strange, but it’s true.

For years I had been living beyond my means. Not in extravagant ways, but in small and persistent ways over years and years. Being self-employed meant I would go through periods of unemployment. But instead of seeking to broaden my opportunities for work, I lived off the money I should have paid in taxes. And when that ran out, credit cards. I don’t see this as particularly immoral, but it is definitely boneheaded. And this easy availability of cash through those years made it easy to sweep the problem under the rug while continuing to exacerbate it. “Those are nice shoes, why don’t I just buy them,” et cetera.

All of which finally led me finally to the collapse of last year. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Revenue Canada did me a favour driving me into bankruptcy. I never would have done it on my own. I think I felt it was somehow shameful or way too extreme.  I certainly couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live without credit, and hadn’t wanted to find out.

But now that I’m bankrupt I see only good things. Not only am I finally up to date on tax filings, I will neverfall behind again—nor will I allow myself to go into unmanageable debt ever again. It’s just too traumatic an experience. Plus, upon discharge, I will be free of debt! Eventually I will want credit again, but me and credit need some time off for now.

Today I am exactly one year into a bankruptcy period that is set for discharge next March or so. Under the terms, I will have paid by that time a portion of my income back to creditors amounting to about 20% of what was owed. This period has imposed on me considerable austerity requirements, but it is a far cry from the financial chaos I had brought on myself before. Most importantly, the austerity has taught me how to live within, or even below, my means, which has been the most valuable lesson of all.

I know the above makes me sound like some kind of neo-liberal drinker of austerity Kool-Aid, but I do think a little austerity can be a good thing—it has certainly taught me a lot. The tragedy in the Eurozone periphery is that the austerity is ideological, draconian and feeds into feelings of hopelessness because there is no end in sight.

For me, there is an end in sight—next March! I look forward to what I know will be a much better played second act.


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I was one of those people who always paid every bill on time! I worked extra shifts and never had a late payment! I paid off my student loans and paid my rent on or before the 1st! I had excellent credit.

Then, I was laid off–could not afford the COBRA insurance–and had the audacity to get sick.

Aside from the physical and emotional stress of cancer, I acquired–in 5 short months–$200,000 in debt. The bill collectors started before the end of round 1 of radiation–and my credit score has plummeted 200 points!

I have been personally responsible and now would have a hard time getting a lease on an apartment! Jobs now routinely do credit checks, and due to illness I could be denied employment!

Debt is a racket–corporations profiting off people and destroying lives in the process.

I am not at all ashamed of my debt–but I am angry!  I am angry and determined! The system of enslaving the poor and shackling people to debt servitude must end–by any means necessary!

-Billy Livsey-

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File Bankruptcy Now

Graduated from college with $25,000 in debt and my family handed me a pile of credit card debt, $30,000, in my name.  Accepting the fate that I would be in debt for 10+ years on my meager college graduate income, I contacted a bankruptcy attorney.  She told me to pay one card so you don’t have to notify them and they won’t cancel on you.  Then you FILE!

Four and a half years later Wells Fargo was beating down my door to buy a home since my debt/income ratio was now under control.  But please know that I have been recently denied for a credit increase on my credit card because of the bankruptcy.

File bankruptcy now to clear your conscious and to stop those monsters from calling you and telling you how immoral your behavior is for not paying your debt.  The banks sell your debt to these vultures and you file to make them go away.

Save your future income and your family all this pain and file bankruptcy now.

– Matt –

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Willing Victim of Predatory Lending

Years ago, being broke, I picked up the phone and called Ditech after seeing those wonderful “solve all your problems” ads. I talked to the nicest guy in the world, whose only mission in life was apparently to help me. Sure enough, two days later, after faxing in a paystub and tax info, a lady came to my door with a nice check that she gave me after I signed a bunch of papers. I was a willing victim of predatory lending. Ditech later sold my mortgage to Greentree, who tried to double my payment. I bucked enough, though, and won that one so far.

– Anonymous –

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I am NOT a Slut, and I am NOT Lazy!

My (now ex) husband is in the Navy.  We were married for over 8 years and were expecting our third child when I discovered he was addicted to incest and child porn.  He refused to get help or quit, so I decided the best thing for our children was to leave.  He controlled all the finances, so I had to borrow $8,000 to pay for a lawyer and moving expenses.

So there I was, 2 kids, a third on the way, all by myself, and I only qualified to make minimum wage.  I enrolled in college; I’m almost done and I have $36,000 in student loans.  While I go to school, we live on my ex’s child support (a whole 20% of his income) which puts us below the poverty line.

A little over a year ago, I reunited with an old friend that I had known since childhood.  Birth control failed and I became pregnant.  My daughter was born with special needs: Erb’s Palsy and clubbed feet, so we thought.  She is 8 months old now, her treatment has cost over $25,000 so far, and it’s not working.  She is now being tested for Osteogenesis Imperfecta (also known as Brittle Bone disease).

So now I’m raising 4 children (3 conceived with their father who I was married to, one conceived with a man I’ve known for 30 years),  all while going to college full time, taking care of a 2 bedroom 1 bath house that is way too small for all of us, and making it to all of the 3 to 5 Doctor appointments each and every week.  I’m also drowning in debt, and with all the medical attention my daughter needs, I have absolutely no hope of ever finding a job that will allow me to work around my baby’s many doctor appointments.

I am sick and tired of people looking at me and assuming I’m a slut because I have 4 kids.  I’m sick and tired of people looking at me like I’m abusing my baby just because she has casts on her poor little legs.  I’m sick and tired of people assuming I’m lazy because I live below the poverty line and I’m accumulating massive debt.  I work my butt off taking care of my children and my responsibilities all while trying to make our lives better; I deserve a little bit of respect…. is that really too much to ask?

– Heather –

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The Cost of Helping Others

A massage therapist. An acupuncturist. 7 years of schooling, and dogpiled under $134,000 worth of debt between two degrees: an Associate’s (2 year) degree, and a Master’s degree (3.5 year), plus 1 year of community college. This is the deep cost of the small, private colleges that teach people how to help with their hands, their minds, and notwith pharmaceuticals, but with the immense power of the human body to heal itself.

We’ve been indoctrinated by Big Pharma to believe that our bodies can’t possibly know how to fix itself, and that only their expensive puppet-doctors and pills are the only thing that can possibly help.

Reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

The body has an immense capability to fix it, whether through herbs, through diet, exercise, massage, meditation or acupuncture.

A fervent Occupy Oaklander, during every event, you would find this healthcare practitioner at the heart of Oscar Grant Plaza, offering free acupuncture and massage treatment for any one who was willing. It’s a firm belief that anyone who wants healthcare should be allowed to have it, and that is the deepest base idea of this blooming medical practice.

A staunch practitioner of the Buddhist ideal of nonviolence. Do not misunderstand: Nonviolence does not equate to cowardice. In fact, there is a monumental amount of courage required to maintain such a lifestyle. There’s a deep level of compassion for all living beings, including those doing the oppressing. To walk up to those people with open hands held high and a bright smile takes nothing but the utmost level of courage.

There is no hate, no malice, no violence, in this heart. It would be easy to regret the tens of thousands of dollars that was required to come to this point. But why would anyone shy away from this depth of love, at any price?

The photo included is of 5 acupuncturist brothers and sisters treating patients on the steps of Oscar Grant Plaza during the Oakland General Strike on November 2, 2011.

– Jon Nelson –

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Just Wanted a College Degree

All I wanted was to do what I was taught was right when I graduated high school: to get a college degree and make my parents proud.

My passions fall into art. I searched and searched and found the perfect art college I could join, right by my parents’ house. This way I could still live with them while I finished my schooling.

Little did I know that “The Art Institutes” are for-profit private schools that have been building a reputation as loan farmers. What they do is use scam business practices and fake numbers and statistics like “85% of our graduates have a full time job the first 6 months out of school.” These statistics were what got me to join.

They then force you to get federal student loans and go through their recommended private bank partners, like Sallie Mae, to loan your money to you.

I’ve seen 7/10 of first year students get tricked into joining the audio productions degree program there because they were led to believe that it was something that it was not. They also brush the tuition of $90,000 under the table while they register you and make sure you are confident and trusting when you join.

I realized their scam too late. After two years in the program, I realized there was no real guaranteed jobs for my degree–that this degree was just made up out of no where, and that I could have went into this field and been successful without even going to college! I also witnessed the school screw over my classmates first-hand and put them $15-20,000 in debt for a year only to realize they were lied to from the beginning about what the school was really about. I am already a senior in the school so it is too late to pull out now. I’m going to finish the degree and hope I will find a job that will be good enough to pay the 600 monthly payments on student loans I will have to pay as soon as I graduate. But I know already that this is unlikely. I understand this field now, and now I will have to be very lucky to ever make enough money to pay this off easily.

With Sallie Mae’s ridiculous, selfish interest rates, I will pay $120,000+ for a stupid art degree that doesn’t mean anything.

These for-profit private schools the Art Institutes are loan farmers, are selfish. They don’t care about art or music. They care about manipulation and money, and I was a sucker. Now will have to struggle the rest of my life with no guaranteed job at all to pay this mistake off.

Thank you America.

– Anonymous –

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