The crisis of family debt

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There is broad consensus among labor unions and progressive organizations, economists and politicians that we need a bottom-up solution to the economic crisis. That is, the priority should be fixing Main Street, not Wall Street. The main proposals include:

1) A moratorium on home foreclosures, and giving bankruptcy courts the power to renegotiate mortgages. 2) Extend unemployment benefits and increase funding for food stamps, heating assistance, and other survival programs. 3) Aid to state and local governments so they can avoid layoffs and reductions in vital services. 4) Rebuilding the infrastructure of America: clean energy, roads, bridges, water systems, schools, and housing, providing good-paying jobs.

Bailing out Wall Street without fixing Main Street is like fixing the cracks in the wall while your foundation is crumbling. The measures listed above, as well as more basic changes, are necessary. But with more than 100,000 families losing their homes each month, I would like to focus on one critical part of the foundation -- stopping foreclosures and keeping families in their homes.

The root of the crisis is that working families have been squeezed from all sides, especially since the recession of 2001. Household income has been falling behind the increasing cost of necessities. The squeeze has been aggravated by the decline of medical coverage and retirement plans, shifting these costs, along with soaring costs for education, food and energy, onto over-strained family budgets.

Many have dealt with this strain by going into debt. They were pushed deeper by the mortgage brokers, real estate agents, appraisers, and credit card vendors, who piled on fees, charges, and hidden interest rates, often based on wildly inflated housing prices. Even when this debt was not the result of outright fraud and conspiracy by the financial and real estate industries, it was in violation of any reasonable banking standards. Financial institutions, staffed by MBAs, PhDs and other highly-trained experts, made loans that no first-year economics student should have approved.

The immediate cause of the financial crisis on Wall Street is this mountain of debt smothering people on Main Street. In simplified form, here is what happens. ● Hard-pressed families fall behind on their mortgage and credit card payments. ● When homeowners can't make payments, the banks foreclose, but the home frequently stands empty and the bank is unable to recover much of the outstanding loan.. ● The bank, with less money coming in, has trouble paying other banks and investors that it borrowed money from. ● Those other banks and investors have trouble paying banks and investors they borrowed from. ● Banks, investors, and ordinary businesses are afraid to lend money to other banks, investors and ordinary businesses.

Families owe more on their mortgages and their credit cards than they can ever pay back. And their effort to save their homes and meet creditors' demands is undermining their families, their neighborhoods and the local economy, as family members work multiple jobs and cut back on health care, local purchases, local taxes, utilities, and home maintenance.

The bailout package just approved by Congress doesn't address this problem at all. Homeowners and consumers still have the same debt, still face the same monthly payments. The only change is that the U.S. government has become a collection agent for the banks and investors.

The solution is to reduce the amount that working people owe. Reduce homeowners' and consumers' debt to the level it would be at if reasonable lending standards had been applied in the first place. Conservative practice is that families should pay no more than 25 percent of their income for housing. So a people's bailout plan would mandate that mortgages be reduced so that monthly payments will be 25 percent of household income. But in no case should the debt be for more than the real value of the house, as determined by historical price levels adjusted for inflation. Credit card debt, second mortgages, and home improvement loans, college loans, and medical debt could also be adjusted by similar calculations, to a maximum of 10 percent of household income.

This would not cost the government a penny -- it would force banks and investors to recognize the losses resulting from their own bad judgment and fraudulent practices. Millions of people would still be in their homes, and neighborhoods and local tax bases would be stabilized. And the financial system would be more stable because the banks could now be confident of receiving a steady stream of payments, even though these payments would be less than what they originally expected.

The proposals to revive the economy, listed at the beginning of this article, should still be adopted. The economic stimulus package that was blocked in the Senate by a Republican filibuster a few weeks ago included some of those provisions. And major reform and regulation of the financial industry is necessary; there are some excellent proposals to take over failing banks, regulate the financial industry, and tax financial transactions and exorbitant compensation to control speculation and help pay for the program. But until we clear up the massive, unfair, and often illegal debt that has been fastened on working families, it will act as an anchor dragging down the economy, and Main Street will be haunted by insecurity and misery.

Democratic leaders in Congress had a number of proposals that would have reduced the amount families owe on their mortgages. They were blocked by the Republicans, who don't support any meaningful relief for homeowners.

During the vice presidential debate, Senator Biden expressed support for bankruptcy reform to reduce the amount owed by homeowners, and said that he thought that McCain opposed it. Governor Palin said that Biden was wrong, implying that McCain also supports the measure, and said that McCain is on the side of the people against “the greed and corruption on Wall Street.”

There is a simple test to see if Palin's claim has any substance. Will McCain show leadership and bipartisanship by proposing that Senators Obama and Biden join him in pushing to pass this bankruptcy legislation immediately? The proposal was killed in the Senate last April after encountering “stiff opposition from many Republicans as well as the banking and mortgage loan industries,” according to the New York Times. (April 4, 2008) But with McCain's backing, there should be no problem getting this legislation through Congress now.

Art Perlo (econ4ppl@cpusa.org) is chair of the Communist Party’s economic commission.