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Chip away at bankruptcy rate with education


Are you in over your head financially? No problem. Just file for bankruptcy.

That sure seems to be the prevailing philosophy in Iowa, as well as the rest of the country. Through the first four months of 2004, we’re on track to beat last year’s record level of bankruptcy filings in the Southern District of Iowa, which encompasses Des Moines and roughly the southern half of the state. Last year, the Southern District handled 7,580 bankruptcies, nearly all of them in the consumer category. That’s more than twice the total filed 10 years earlier. Nationally, bankruptcy filings totaled a record 1.66 million.  Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley keeps trying to change federal bankruptcy law to require some repayment of debts. He’s right; when times get tough, it shouldn’t be so temptingly easy to declare bankruptcy, leave your creditors holding the bag and go on with your life. His approach would make the situation better, as long as it includes means testing so the truly down-and-out have a chance to make a comeback. But he’s been working on this for years and can’t get past the resistance.

We shouldn’t be waiting for government to fix this anyway. Let’s go back to basics and try to reduce the number of bankruptcy filings at the source. Fiscal irresponsibility isn’t unique to youth, but that’s where we have the best shot at changing habits, so let’s make sure every high school senior receives a few hours of education about credit cards, debt and finance charges.

As soon as they reach adulthood, or maybe sooner, they’ll be swamped by credit card offers. When you’re just starting out, those offers look like a magical way to get everything you want right now.

Tom Coates, director of the non-profit credit counseling agency Consumer Credit of Des Moines, and attorney Don Neiman, who handles many local bankruptcy cases, both point to this abundance of easy credit as a major factor in the bankruptcy plague.

We can’t stop the offers from coming, but we can give young people a more realistic understanding of credit and help them avoid taking on a debt load that might entangle them for years.

Coates does his part by volunteering one day per semester to discuss the subject in Norwalk High School’s economics classes. Maybe you can find a way to get involved, too.   

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