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Dennis M. Kelleher Headshot

The Real Cost of the Financial Crisis

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Foreclosure mills and their employees getting rich off the poor fortune of others is a routine bottom-feeding business and have been around a long time. Occasional stories about their heartless, indifferent and often brutal actions occasionally pop up, but no one ever really pays attention. After all, these people "deserve" to be foreclosed on, is the typical way to quickly dismiss caring about such unpleasantness.

But, pictures, that's another story. They might actually show such a callous disregard that someone might move out of their comfortable disinterest and pay attention about this disreputable business.

Well, those pictures are here and laid out for all to see in Saturday's New York Times column by Joe Nocera. The pictures are of a foreclosure mill law firm's employees making fun of and mocking the poor, unemployed, down-on-their-luck fellow human beings being thrown out of their homes and onto the street. The employees did this at their office during work hours at the office Halloween party. (Read the full story and see all the photos here.)

But, the pictures may be about much more than the repulsive underbelly of a seedy business (which Mr. Nocera so brilliantly details). They illuminate, I fear, one of the biggest unmentioned costs of the economic crisis that arose from the Wall Street created financial meltdown that began in 2008. It is an increasing lack of compassion in this country for people, often hard-working, descent, regular middle-class and working-class people. With an historically high un- and under-employment rate created by the financial crisis, it is not difficult for many people and families to find themselves in a downward spiral that too often ends in losing their homes. That's why we have historically high foreclosure rates and that's why they are going to continue.

Think of what would happen if you or whoever the breadwinner is in your family or household lost his or her job. Very, very few people or families have big enough savings or other assets to survive the loss of a job. Frankly, people simply cannot afford to lose their jobs and, when they do, the trip to the bottom is often brutally fast. First, they cut back spending on things they don't need. Then, they cut back spending on things they do need. Next, they max out credit cards. Then, they start asking family and friends for help. Not paying the bills, including the mortgage, is next. And, the downward debt spiral accelerates until they hit bottom.

This is all compounded by shame, remorse, anger, fear and too often feelings of worthlessness and depression. And, all of that is compounded by the dunning phone calls, mail and door knocks from bill collectors, repo men coming at night and taking away the car, and soon come the relentless employees from the foreclosure mills (apparently, in between their parties making fun of the people they are foreclosing on). This isn't just happening in the so-called "poor" neighborhoods. It's happening all over America and it's probably happening right now in your neighborhood.

It has to be. The numbers don't lie. There are more than 25 million Americans unemployed, underemployed (working part time only because they cannot find full time work) or who have given up looking because they have been fruitlessly looking for so long (so-called discouraged workers). And, there are millions of foreclosures happening right now and millions more mortgages delinquent moving into foreclosure.

The weekly paycheck, that job, is the thin, fragile line between almost everyone's current lifestyle and the slippery slope into economic ruin. That is what people are averting their eyes from when they so quickly look away from someone down on their luck. They are turning away from their own all-to-uncomfortably-close future.

The employment and housing crisis currently ripping through this country is not due to shiftless deadbeats and scammers. It is due to a wrenching economic collapse that can be tied directly to a decade of greed and criminality at the core of the financial system that caused the Wall Street meltdown. The false comfort that comes from viewing the unemployed and foreclosed upon as "other" people, not at all like me or my friends and family, is understandable. But, it is past time for us to accept that those views are often baseless and unjustifiable.

The hollowing out of the middle class, including, importantly, the well-educated middle class, never mind the so-called working class, is profoundly reshaping our country in many ways. It is also eating at the culture of our country, which used to be known for compassion and shared sacrifice. Those days appear increasingly gone. Making fun of and laughing about the poor, the unemployed, the foreclosed upon and the homeless may not yet be routine and acceptable, but one has to wonder how far away that is.

That is a cost of the crisis that should give everyone pause.