When the GOP Congress passed and President Bush signed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, supporters hailed the measure as a victory for "personal responsibility."
Three years later, the bill has managed to dent the number of bankruptcies filed in America -- from 1.6 million in 2004 to 850,912 in 2007, according to the nonpartisan American Bankruptcy Institute. That number is great for the banks, but in the wake of America's subprime mortgage and home foreclosure wakeup call, you can't argue that either American lenders or consumers are exhibiting more personal responsibility.
Forget high gas prices. If you're among the 1 in 5 households with credit-card debt service payments exceeding 10 percent of your income, you probably have bigger problems. Congress refused to cap interest rates at 30 percent when it passed the bankruptcy bill. Predatory lenders remain free to charge usurious interest rates, as well as to assess whopping late-payment penalties.
A report, "For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture," released last month by the Institute for American Values, Public Agenda and other do-gooder groups, catalogs the many ways that private and public institutions are making it fast and easy for working people to do the wrong thing with their hard-earned dollars.
Financial institutions that previously encouraged Americans to save a portion of their income now encourage consumers to borrow for daily household expenses such as groceries. The credit-card industry pioneered a set of "practices and products that ensured long-term consumer dependency on expensive credit, " the report noted.
The report's lead author, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, told me that when her group first started throwing out the term "thrift," others saw them as "stingy unimaginative people who live dreary lives." I hesitate, lest I come across as a middle-aged woman wagging a finger at young people for spending too much money -- which often entails having loads of fun.
So let me frame this as a class issue. People who are stuck in the credit-card trap -- or worse, the payday lenders' snare -- face huge impediments to becoming middle class. It is shocking to learn that 56 percent of college students carry four or more credit cards. That's a big problem, but at least these young adults are likely to see the day when their incomes can buy an end to a cycle of debt. The majority of workers, who are not college graduates, stand to lose the most if they get snared by the lure of over-borrowing.