Why the Fight for Financial Reform Needs to Get Much More Personal

When it comes to the fight over financial reform, Democrats are making the same mistake they did with health care: failing to put the effect reform would have on the lives of real Americans front and center.
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One of the biggest mistakes of the health care fight -- and one of the main reasons the fight dragged on so long -- was the White House's failure to put the effect reform would have on the lives of real Americans front and center. Instead of shining a light on why we needed reform in the first place (millions of suffering people), the administration led with CBO scores, and data about cost-bending and deficit reduction. Finally, at the 11th hour, the president shifted the focus to real people and their stories -- people like Marcelas Owens, the 11-year-old boy whose mother died because she didn't have insurance, and Natoma Canfield, the Ohio woman who gave up her health coverage after her rates where raised by more than 40 percent, and who is now fighting leukemia. That change in tactics made all the difference in reminding the public of the moral imperative underpinning reform.

Yet, when it comes to selling financial reform, Democrats are making the same mistake all over again. The nuts and bolts of the legislation -- which are even harder for the public to get its head around than they were with health care -- are being given a full airing in Congress, on op-ed pages and blogs, and on TV. And these devilish details -- capital requirement levels, proprietary trading restrictions, the independence of the proposed consumer financial protection agency, etc., etc. -- are critical. They are critical because it was getting them wrong that promoted the devastation in people's lives we now see around the country. But the human element is once again getting short shrift.

This is a big-time blunder. Ask the proverbial men and women on the street where they stand on the Volcker Rule, and watch their eyes glaze over. The administration needs to make it clear: we don't need to overhaul our financial system because the Wall Street sandbox has gotten a little messy, and bank CEO bonuses have gotten too big. We need to overhaul our financial system to make sure that system isn't rigged to destroy the lives of millions of middle class Americans who worked hard, played by the rules, and ended up holding the short end of the stick when the big banks drove our economy over the edge of the cliff.

We need financial reform because of the enormous human suffering -- the battered and broken lives -- our current system has caused. Suffering that continues as the ins and outs of reform legislation are being debated.

The fact that this suffering has been largely missing from the debate is one of the main reasons reform is still being debated. If the discussion were more connected to the human consequences of the financial collapse, serious reform would already be the law of the land. Because the devastation isn't just being felt by the poor. It's affecting a wide swath of the group that has long been the foundation of the American economy and the personification of the American Dream: the middle class. People who had steady jobs; people with college degrees; people who were paying their bills, saving for retirement, doing the right thing -- and who have, in many instances, lost everything. The daily miseries being visited upon them are unfolding across the country.

Of course, these miseries are just the latest blow. The problems for America's middle class began long before Lehman Brothers went belly up and AIG turned into the world's biggest casino.

There were 1.1 million consumer bankruptcies filed in 2008. A study by Elizabeth Warren and Ohio University's Deborah Thorne, entitled "The Vulnerable Middle Class: Bankruptcy and Class Status," found that the personal bankruptcy surge is being led by former members of the middle class.

According to the report, the proportion of bankruptcies filed by those who had attended college went from around 46 percent in 1991 to almost 60 percent in 2007. And, ominously, the data for the report was compiled before the economic crash. "I'm almost afraid to look at the data now," says Warren.

Given the lack of urgency we are seeing in Washington, and the lack of focus on real people, it would seem that our lawmakers -- for very different reasons than Warren -- are taking the same "can't bring myself to look" approach.

The consequences of our failed financial system are everywhere you look. At HuffPost, we've made a point of keeping the spotlight on the real people affected by the crisis -- to put flesh and blood on the cold, hard statistics -- through the reporting of our economic impact correspondent Arthur Delaney and our reporter Laura Bassett, as well though our Bearing Witness 2.0 initiative that asks people from around the country to tell their stories of lives turned upside down as a result of our out of control financial system.

People like Ron Bednar and Mary McCurnin, of Rancho Cordova, California -- a loving couple that got divorced last year not because their relationship wasn't working but because it was the only way to make ends meet. Due to unemployment and a bankruptcy caused by a prolonged illness, they found themselves with only $300 in the bank. By getting divorced, Mary was able to collect Social Security widow's benefits from her first husband, who died in 1989. "We literally live from week to week," she told HuffPost.

And Kimberly Rios of Maryland, who sold her wedding ring on Craigslist so she could pay her utility bills. "This is no joke, please be a serious buyer," her ad read. "It is too cold for us to be without electric and heat so if you have been looking consider my deal." After selling her ring, she locked herself in her bathroom, pretending to take a shower, so she could cry without upsetting her family. "I just felt like it was the last piece of what little I had left," she says. "I came out smiling as usual and tried to get my husband and daughter excited that this was a good thing."

Faye Harris was laid off from her accounting job at Emory University Hospital last year. She had gotten cancer, and was fighting it successfully. But as soon as the time off she was guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act expired, she received a letter of termination and her health insurance was canceled. "Do I just lay down and die? Am I not worthy anymore?" she says she asked herself. "I've worked all my life. Put myself through school, raised four children, played by the rules, saved money, and this one illness has just wiped me out."

Ricky Macoy of Quinlan, Texas is a 52-year-old electrician who found himself among the long-term unemployed. With little work since late in 2008, he began pawning his possessions, including his tools, and holding yard sales to get enough money to feed his family. "The thing that hurt the most was we had to hawk my son's Playstation 3, his Wii, his electric guitar," Macoy said. "We lived a good life. Middle income America, man. I'm used to construction, the booms and the busts... [but] I was not expecting to be laid off this long."

Heather Tanner of Pacifica, California put herself through law school, working during the day and attending classes at night -- dreaming of one day being able to move her family out of their apartment and buy a house. In August, she was laid off from her $100,000 a year job as an attorney -- and then struggled to find a job. "I applied for jobs at Target, Macy's, as a camp counselor," she said. "I've been on many interviews, but the comments I get at non-legal jobs are, 'Why do you need this kind of job?' I mean, I have a family to support." She and her husband cashed in their 401K and used their savings to pay off bills. "The kids don't understand," she said, explaining that the thing that hurt the most was having to disappoint her children when it came to things like birthday visits to Disneyland the family could no longer afford. "I'd love to make their dreams come true, but right now we just have to focus on getting by."

I could go on and on. There are, sadly, millions of these stories. Stories crying out to be told. Stories which, if told often enough, will bring the human element to the fore of the financial reform debate -- and grab the public's imagination.

But since most of our leaders -- and most of the media -- have failed to focus on the kinds of stories that resonate with the public, many of the people affected by the financial crisis have begun taking matters into their own hands. We're in the midst of an explosion of new media and social media being used as a means for gathering information about surviving the crisis and connecting with others who find themselves in the same boat.

Sites like Recessionwire.com (which "aims to chronicle the 'upside of the downturn' through personal stories, helpful advice and reportage on the changes underway in these hard times"), LayoffSupportNetwork.com (which aims to "unite displaced workers... by combining the accumulated knowledge of many people that have survived, or are currently surviving without a job"), and LayoffSpace.com (a social network where the unemployed can blog, chat, share ideas, find support, and one-stop career support). There are also a growing number of sites -- including HowIGotLaidOff.com and The405club.com -- where people can share their job loss stories and commiserate.

Conventional journalism failed to fully capture the reality of Vietnam. It's happening again -- we are failing to capture the turbulence of our times with narratives that allow the public, and force our leaders, to connect with the pain and suffering that should be fueling the fight for financial reform.

It's time to put that pain and suffering front and center.

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