Petitioning a giant

Debt, reciprocity, and mortgage modification in the Sacramento Valley

by Noelle Stout

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Following the 2007 mortgage crash, the US government established programs to assist homeowners by modifying their mortgages. But the oversight of these programs was granted to the same mortgage industry giants that provoked the crisis, and these lenders rejected over 70 percent of applicants’ requests for modifications. In the process, there emerged new mortgage-modification bureaucracies, fusing corporate and state forms of administrative power. Yet as mortgagors demanded assistance from private lenders, they and lending company employees were drawn into reciprocal relationships that anthropologists have previously associated with “gift economies.” This convergence of government and corporate bureaucracies has inspired among homeowners and modification specialists in California’s Sacramento Valley forms of reciprocity often considered antithetical to late-capitalist finance. This surprising contemporary juxtaposition of reciprocity and indebtedness suggests a need to revise long-standing anthropological theories about the social obligations born of debt ties within late liberal capitalist markets.

A mortgage-modification fair in Sacramento, California, June 28, 2015.
A mortgage-modification fair in Sacramento, California, June 28, 2015.