Recession takes toll in court

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

February 07, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The instant I identified myself on the phone as a journalist, conversation stopped and silence fell -- a weighty silence -- a silence so still and so complete that I could hear the woman on the other line breathing heavily.

She and her husband recently had filed for bankruptcy and I wanted to talk with them about it.

"Oh," said the woman at last -- and she spoke softly, almost in a whisper -- "I don't think I can talk about that at all."

I promised we would take care not to identify her.

There was another lengthy silence.

"I know, I know," she said finally, "but it would be humiliating. I would know. I think I would feel that everybody who reads it would know."

"I imagine this is a very hard time for you," I said.

And once again, for the third time in this brief conversation, rTC silence dropped between us like a heavy curtain.

"Yes," she said, "I guess it is."

"These are good people," said the couple's attorney. "Hardworking people, people who have never been in this kind of difficulty before. They are, in the literal sense of the word, victims of circumstance."

The woman's husband got sick last year, and missed three months off from work. They fell further and further behind in their bills until, finally, last month, their mortgage company garnished the couple's wages.

"Lending institutions are under the gun themselves," explained the lawyer. "They've got bank examiners looking over their shoulders, so, where once they may have been willing to work with people, now they simply move in and grab what they can."

On Monday then, desperate and humiliated, the couple sought help in reorganizing their bills under Chapter 13 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act.

"I know," said the attorney, "that they feel very bad about this, that they feel humiliated and embarrassed, as if they had failed. But believe me, they are not alone."

No, they are not alone.

These are hard times, recessionary times, that have been aggravated by continued crises in the savings and loan and banking industries and, now, of course, by the war.

Economists say non-business bankruptcy filings are up 130 percent nationwide, compared with the mid-1980s.

We are talking about thousands, possibly millions of besieged people. Where once "the runner stumbled" into this, our mad and vicious rat race, now runners tumble to the ground in droves.

"Yeah, yeah, it's pretty much hemorrhaging out there," said Michael E. Fine, another attorney who handles a lot of bankruptcy cases.

"Most people are living just three or four weeks away from bankruptcy court. Somebody gets ill, or they get laid off, and suddenly they find they simply cannot make it.

"And I'll tell you another thing," Fine said. "Individuals just aren't that culpable. Increasingly, we are finding families who are victims of circumstance."

At the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland, officials predict their caseload this year will more than double over what they saw last year. That means an estimated 20,000 new families seeking help by the end of 1991.

"Credit grantors are having trouble with people who have never been in trouble before, with whom they never expected to have trouble," said John Gengler, educational director at CCC.

"These aren't necessarily people who have mismanaged their money, although we still see some of those," Gengler went on.

"But many of the new cases involve people, or families, where something happened. They made good decisions, based on what they were making at the time, but then, something happens and the rug gets pulled out from under them."

"The panic is just beginning to sink in," said Alice G. Pinderhughes, a lawyer who also oversees divorce cases as an equity court master in the city.

"I've got clients who are doctors or lawyers or other professional people. They hear about their friends and neighbors getting laid off and they begin to worry, too."

Yesterday, Pinderhughes heard 17 divorce cases, which is an average day in the city. But I suggested that, when stress from the recession hits full stride, divorces will skyrocket.

"I'm not too sure about that," she argued. "It could be that it will bring people closer together. We'll just have to wait and see what happens, maybe six months down the road."

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