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Old Debts, Fresh Pain: Weak Laws Offer Debtors Little Protection, by Paul Kiel, ProPublica, and Chris Arnold, NPR, ProPublica (This story was co-published with NPR.)

http://www.propublica.org/article/old-debts-fresh-pain-weak-laws-offer-debtors-little-protection

Like any American family living paycheck to paycheck, Conrad Goetzinger and Cassandra Rose hope that if they make the right choices, their $13-an-hour jobs will keep the lights on, put food in the fridge and gas in the car.

But every two weeks, the Omaha, Neb. couple is reminded of a choice they didn’t make and can’t change: A chunk of both of their paychecks disappears before they see it, seized to pay off old debts.

The seizures are the latest tactic of debt collectors who have tracked the couple for years, twice scooping every penny out of Goetzinger’s bank account and even attempting to seize his personal property. For Goetzinger, 29, they’re the bewildering consequences of a laptop loan he didn’t pay off after high school; for Rose, 33, a painful reminder of more than $20,000 in medical bills racked up while uninsured. The garnishments, totaling about $760 each month, comprise the single largest expense in the budget.

‘I honestly dread paydays,’ said Goetzinger. ‘Because I know it’s gone by Saturday afternoon, by the time we go grocery shopping.’

Across the country, millions of other workers face a similar struggle: how to live when a large fraction of their paycheck is diverted for a consumer debt, as ProPublica and NPR reported Monday. The highest rates of garnishment are among workers who, like Rose and Goetzinger, earn between $25,000 and $40,000, but the numbers are nearly as high for those who earn even less, according to a new study by ADP, the nation’s largest payroll services provider.

Those who fall into this system find their futures determined by laws that consumer advocates say are outdated, overly punitive and out of touch with the financial reality faced by many Americans. . . .

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