Personal bankruptcy filings rose nearly 20% last year, reaching a record of more than 1.3 million, according to data released Tuesday by Visa U.S.A.
Losses are mounting, too. Consumer lenders wrote off $40 billion in 1997 because of bankruptcies-up $10 billion from the previous year, Visa said.
Lenders, credit card companies, retailers, and others hope these figures add weight to calls on Capitol Hill for legislation to reform the bankruptcy code.
"1998 should be the year to enact significant bankruptcy reform that protects bill-paying consumers from having to pick up the tabs for individuals in bankruptcy who are getting more relief than they need," said Visa spokesman David B. Sandor.
West Virginia showed the largest percentage gain, with filings rising 54.2% to more than 7,600. It was followed by Hawaii (42.5%), and Vermont (37.8%). California, which leads the nation with 202,642 filings, saw its growth rate drop to nearly 13.9% last year from 23% a year earlier.
Visa projected that bankruptcies will rise nationally by 15% this year.
Two bills have been introduced in Congress that would prevent borrowers from canceling their credit card debts and other unsecured debts under Chapter 7 if they can afford to repay them. Other measures are expected.
Lenders support this "needs-based bankruptcy" concept and want reforms that are tougher on borrowers than those proposed by the National Bankruptcy Review Commission in October.
The National Consumer Bankruptcy Coalition- which includes the major banking and thrift trade groups, Visa, MasterCard International, and retailers-favors a bill introduced in September by Reps. Bill McCollum, R- Fla., and Rick Boucher, D-Va.
That bill prevents consumers from eliminating unsecured debt if their family income exceeds 75% of the median income of U.S. families of equal size and they can afford to repay 20% of their debts over five years.
Alternatively, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced legislation in late October that would let judges decide whether high-income borrowers should be required to repay their debts, rather than be allowed to cancel them. Lenders oppose the Grassley plan because judges would be given too much discretion, said Philip S. Corwin, a lobbyist at Federal Legislative Associates here who represents the American Bankers Association.
The Consumer Federation of America objects to the McCollum bill as costly and unfair to consumers, said legislative director Mary Rouleau. Lenders should tighten credit instead, she said. The legislation "is their attempt to turn the bankruptcy court into their own personal collection agency."