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The Depressing Geography of Debt Collection

Where creditors can legally take your car, your home, the last dollar in your bank account, and your kitchen appliances.

One of the cruelties about falling deep into debt is that you need a few things to get out of it: maybe a car to commute to the job that will help you pay back your bills, or a subsistence wage that will feed and house your family while you work on that, or a minimum quantity of cash in the bank to cover things like gas to run that car, or medicine to keep you moving.

If debt collectors seize any of those things, repaying debt becomes that much harder. Because of this, states have protections called "exemption" laws that limit what creditors can seize from a family teetering on destitution. These laws have become particularly relevant since the onset of the recession (or the rise of what the National Consumer Law Center calls the "lucrative and fast-growing debt buyer industry").

Not surprisingly, exemption laws vary dramatically depending on where you live, and the NCLC considers many of them to be outdated. In a survey of what these protections currently look like across the country, the NCLC argues that not one state offers all the minimum standards you might need to really survive debt. Some states (Massachusetts and Iowa) are much better than others (Alabama, Kentucky and Michigan).

This is the geography of where your car, your home, and even your household goods, are up for grabs. Yes, that includes cooking utensils, bedding, furniture and appliances:

A) States that ban wage garnishment for most debts. B) States that preserve 90% of debtors wages. C) States that preserve enough wages so that paycheck does not drop below the poverty level. D) States that preserve more than the minimum required by federal law. F) States that protect only the federal minimum.
A) States that protect an average, used compact car from seizure. B) States that provide at least $9,000 in combined exemption for car and household goods. C) States that protect a car worth $5,000-$6,999. D) States that protect a car worth $1,500-$4,999. F) No protection.
A) States that protect a home of any value, or a median-priced home. B) Protections for a home worth $100,000-$211,311. C) Protections for a home worth $50,001-$99,999. D) Protections for a home worth $5001-$50,000. F) Little or no protection.
A) States that protect all of a debtors necessary household goods. B) Protections for at least $10,000 in household goods. C) $7,000-$9,999 in household goods. D) $2,001-$6,999. F) Protection for almost none of a debtor's household goods.

All maps courtesy of the National Consumer Law Center.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.