Congressman Bill Pascrell

Representing the 9th District of NEW JERSEY

Government is bankrupt on compassion

Oct 16, 2005

Hurricane Katrina was more than a natural catastrophe. The painful images of Americans suffering, dying and calling desperately for help will forever be seared into our collective conscience.

Katrina was a revelation. As a country, we will no longer be able to speak of our impoverished as an abstraction or pretend we've never seen the faces of the forgotten. We are forced to confront the difficult, dark truths that plague our society. How we respond will determine our nation's character.

We know that many hurricane victims struggled with adversity long before the storm and floods arrived. In fact, in the areas hit hardest, more than 1 million people languished in poverty before nature's onslaught.

These Americans, trapped in the generational cycle of persistent hardship, have not benefited from the dramatic and deep cuts in estate, dividend and capital-gains taxes that have been the main focus of Washington in recent years. For too long, our government has failed them.

The failure continues.

Out of homes, out of jobs, maxed out on credit cards so that they can get by, many Katrina survivors are again about to face the harsh realities of a government depleted of compassion. Just as they are beginning to pick up the pieces of their lives, many will have to overcome another disaster - a man-made abomination, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Act.

Every major hurricane in the past 25 years has brought with it an increase in bankruptcy filings, and with Katrina - the worst natural disaster within our shores in modern times - we can expect this sad fact to continue.

Thanks to the bankruptcy bill, signed into law in April and going into effect Monday, many Katrina victims will find themselves entangled in an arduous labyrinth of requirements, restrictions, penalties and overly austere burdens of proof to start anew. The bankruptcy bill will force thousands of people who would now qualify for Chapter 7 debt forgiveness into the more confining Chapter 13, where their future wages will be garnished for years.

The bill that passed Congress didn't take into consideration that sudden catastrophe can strike any individual at any time and bring monumental ruin. In fact, the House actually rejected special considerations for victims of natural disasters when this bill was up for initial debate earlier this year.

Should Katrina victims who have lost absolutely everything be forced to produce a raft of documents, including pay stubs, tax returns and a multitude of other detailed paperwork on itemized expenses to file for bankruptcy? Should Katrina victims who have lost absolutely everything be forced to pay for and attend credit counseling before they can file for bankruptcy?

Should Katrina victims who have lost absolutely everything be labeled as "fraudulent" claimants if they obtained a cash advance from their credit card totaling more than $750 two months before filing for bankruptcy? How coarse have we become if we automatically presume impropriety against a Katrina survivor who needed cash during this time of need?

We owe it to Katrina's survivors to help them put their lives back together without the additional stress and burden of these new inflexible bankruptcy laws. Altering, or at least postponing, enactment of the bankruptcy bill would be the moral thing to do.

After all, in times of crisis, the American family must come together and do what's right. That should be the character of our nation.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, represents the 8th Congressional District.