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Weekly Audit: Fixing the Foreclosure Problem

by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire blogger

The U.S. job market may be showing signs of life, according to a report issued by the Labor Department on Friday. The unemployment rate dropped in July, something no economist expected. Under the most optimistic interpretation, the news indicates that the worst of the recession is finally behind us. But the scenario isn’t really so rosy, as our government has yet to relieve the foreclosure pandemic. Even if unemployment is leveling off, there will be no economic recovery if the the foreclosure problem isn’t fixed.

July’s unemployment rate only fell from 9.5% to 9.4%, and even the most bullish Wall Street economists think the rate will hit double digits by the end of the year. The fact that July’s tiny drop in unemployement counts for good economic news says a lot about how severely the economy has deteriorated over the past year and a half.

But when you dig a little deeper, the numbers get worse. As Tim Fernholz explains for The American Prospect, even though the unemployment rate dropped, the nation’s economy actually shed 247,000 jobs in July. The rate was pushed down because 400,000 people gave up looking for a job in July; as such, they are no longer included in the statistic. So, while we "only" lost 247,000 jobs, we also lost 400,000 workers.

The government also adjusts its job loss figures for seasonal developments. When the Labor Department says we lost 247,000 jobs in July, that isn’t the actual number—it’s the number relative to what the Department considers a normal July. This summer has been unique for the U.S. economy, and especially in the case of the automobile industry. Auto companies usually lay off workers in the summer: The factories close while companies prepare the next year’s models. So many factories were already closed earlier this year that the seasonal shutdowns haven’t really happened this summer. Even though car companies laid people off in July, the government’s seasonally adjusted numbers marked an increase in car manufacturing jobs.

Things get even more complicated when you include the Cash for Clunkers program, which started on July 24. The plan offers people up to $4,500 to trade in their gas guzzlers for more fuel efficient new car. Whether the program helps the environment is somewhat controversial, but there is no doubt that it has created a lot of unusual demand for new cars. As Ed Brayton notes for The Michigan Messenger, the government’s plan to pump an additional $2 billion into the program has analysts predicting a big boost for manufacturers in July and August.

So we don’t really know if the labor market actually improved last month, or if the report is just an exaggeration of statistical anomalies resulting from the recession itself, or even some of the government’s recovery efforts. But as Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, even if the numbers come with a healthy dose of uncertainty, it’s still better to see them come in good than bad. "There hasn’t been encouraging news on the job front in quite a while, and given the severity of the economic crisis, today’s report offers at least some relief," Benen says. "The job numbers beat expectations, the overall unemployment rate declined, earnings went up, and the manufacturing sector improved."

But even if unemployment is finally slowing down, the housing market remains awful. Foreclosures are significantly outpacing the administration’s efforts to help troubled borrowers. The Treasury Department released a report last week indicating that only about 9% of the borrowers eligible for relief under the government’s anti-foreclosure plan have actually received any aid—and even here the numbers are juiced to make the program look better. The administration only includes borrowers who are already at least two months behind on their mortgage payments in the group of eligible borrowers, when in fact any borrower in danger of "imminent default" is supposed to be eligible. Much of the problem, as I argue in a piece for Salon, is that the plan relies on private-sector debt collectors to identify distressed homeowners and get them help, something these companies have never been very interested in doing. All in all, just 235,247 borrowers have received assistance under the Obama plan, while foreclosures increased to 1.5 million in the first six months of 2009, with 2.4 million expected for the entire year and 9 million by 2012.

Writing for Mother Jones, Andy Kroll emphasizes that a much better policy option is available than the current tack. Rather than ask the banking industry to voluntarily adopt the administration’s plan without any consequences, we should put "homeowners’ fate in the hands of a neutral arbiter, like a bankruptcy court judge . . . [It] would go a long way toward stemming the tide of foreclosures," Kroll writes.

Thanks to a bizarre legal loophole, mortgages cannot be modified in a bankruptcy proceeding if the owner actually lives in the house (investment properties, on the other hand, can be written off). In other words, if a predatory loan is driving you bankrupt, a judge can’t do anything about it in bankruptcy court. Congress has tried to change this rule a few times over the past year, but the bank lobby has stymied those efforts. The most recent legislative push failed overcome a Senate filibuster in April, but the political momentum may be changing as foreclosures get increasingly out of hand.

As Mike Lillis notes for The Colorado Independent, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., plans to bring back the legislation if the banking industry doesn’t get serious about helping borrowers fast. Many of the companies letting borrowers fall into foreclosure received billions of dollars in bailout money over the past year, and some even agreed to help borrowers as a condition for taxpayer support. But reform doesn’t just depend on the banks. Peter Dreier argues in The Nation that citizens need to publicly protest for stronger economic reforms.

Foreclosures are terrible for the economy. They wreak havoc on families’ lives, wipe out personal savings, lower the value of neighboring properties and put more homes on the market, further lowering home prices nationwide. If we cannot stop foreclosures, the economy cannot recover. If job losses are finally moderating, that’s great news. But it would be much better to see job losses stabilize and see the banks we bailed out actually do something to avert foreclosures.

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