Oregon Allows Debt Collectors to Push Working Families into Poverty
A new report by the National Consumer Law Center gives Oregon a D
Portland, OR - The decision of what bills to pay and what bills to put off is a game of financial roulette tens of thousands of Oregonians are forced to play every month as they struggle to recover from the economic downturn. The priorities are obvious - keep your family housed and fed and pay for transportation plus other items necessary for work - other creditors get what's left.
A new report from the National Consumer Law Center exposes how state exemption laws take these difficult decisions out of workers hands by giving debt collectors the ability to seize a substantial portion of a person's wages and the tools essential for their work. The report, No Fresh Start: How States Let Debt Collectors Push Families into Poverty, finds that Oregon law fails to meet basic standards that would allow debtors to continue to work productively to support themselves and their families.
Exemption laws are designed to protect debtors and their families from poverty, and preserve their ability to be productive members of society. Oregon gets an F when it comes to protecting wages. Current wage garnishment law allows debt collectors to push a family below the poverty level. A minimum wage earner working full time can have their weekly pay reduced to $268.50, less than the federal poverty level for a two-person family. If they work less than full time their wages may be reduced to $217.50, less than half of the federal poverty level for a family of four. Oregon's overall grade is a D. A copy of the NCLC report can be found here.
Oregon's archaic exemption laws fuel the lucrative and fast-growing debt buyer industry. "When a worker's wages are slashed below the poverty level to pay off old credit card debt that was bought for pennies on the dollar by an out-of-state debt buyer everyone loses. The debtor can't pay the landlord or the childcare worker and the family is forced to rely on government services to make ends meet," said Angela Martin, Executive Director of Economic Fairness Oregon, an advocacy group fighting for reform of Oregon's debt collection laws.
"In 2012, the FTC received more than 125,000 consumer complaints about debt collection, representing almost 25% of all consumer complaints it received. Debt collection lawsuits are clogging up civil courts across the nation," said Robert Hobbs, National Consumer Law Center's Deputy Director and author of Fair Debt Collection. "This report serves as a wake-up call for states to update their exempt property laws and stop putting millions of families at risk. Doing so will allow local courts to redirect their focus from the insatiable appetite of a debt machine that churns out millions of undocumented debt collection lawsuits each year."
The NCLC report includes several recommends for reforming state exemption laws, those include:
Preserve the debtor's ability to work, by protecting a working car, work tools and equipment.
Protect the family's housing, necessary household goods, and means of transportation.
Protect a living wage for working debtors that will meet basic needs.
Protect retirees from destitution by restricting creditors' ability to seize retirement funds.
Be automatically updated for inflation.
Economic Fairness Oregon
John Gear is a Salem attorney in solo practice