On a recent Saturday afternoon, the mayor of Jennings, a St. Louis suburb of about 15,000, settled in before a computer in the empty city council chambers. Yolonda Fountain Henderson, 50, was elected last spring as the city’s first black mayor.
On the screen was a list of every debt collection lawsuit against a resident of her city, at least 4,500 in just five years. Henderson asked to see her own street. On her block of 16 modest ranch-style homes, lawsuits had been filed against the occupants of eight. “That’s my neighbor across the street,” she said, pointing to one line on the screen.
And then she saw her own suit. Henderson, a single mother, fell behind on her sewer bill after losing her job a few years ago, and the utility successfully sued her. That judgment was listed, as well as how one day the company seized $382 from her credit union account — all she had, but not enough to pay off the debt.
As the lines of suits scrolled by on the screen, Henderson shook her head in disbelief, swinging her dangling, heart-shaped earrings.
“They’re just suing all of us,” she said.
That’s not only true in Jennings. The story is the same down the road in Normandy and in every other black community nearby. In fact, when ProPublica attempted to measure, for the first time, the prevalence of judgments stemming from these suits, a clear pattern emerged: they were massed in black neighborhoods.
The disparity was not merely because black families earn less than white families. Our analysis of five years of court judgments from three metropolitan areas — St. Louis, Chicago and Newark — showed that even accounting for income, the rate of judgments was twice as high in mostly black neighborhoods as it was in mostly white ones.
These findings could suggest racial bias by lenders or collectors. But we found that there is another explanation: That generations of discrimination have left black families with grossly fewer resources to draw on when they come under financial pressure.
Over the past year, ProPublica has investigated a little-known but pervasive shift in the way debt is collected in America: Companies now routinely use the courts to pursue millions of people over even small consumer debts. With the power granted by a court judgment, collectors can seize a chunk of a debtor’s pay. The highest rates of garnishment are among workers who earn between $25,000 and $40,000, but the numbers are nearly as high for those who earn even less.
Source: ProPublica | Paul Kiel, Annie Waldman