Well into Last Week Tonight‘s eighth season, it’s rather unsurprising now when John Oliver starts his show with a rant detailing his overwhelming frustration at the world. His quick speech usually summarizes the week’s public grievances in the first three minutes with blinding speed. Without a moment to reflect, it only seems prudent for the viewer to despair with him about the state of the world.
Predictably, the week’s unfortunate events precipitated another silver-tongued tirade. However, Oliver decided to ditch the diatribe and find some peace and laughter for his embattled viewers.
After a week when bodycam footage was released of two men of color being shot by the police – 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Minneapolis and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago – Oliver found it difficult to offer any conciliatory messages. The British host said there wasn’t much to say after doing five full episodes on the police, segments in which he dove into the history of policing and the pervasiveness of police brutality on communities of color in America. So in an effort to lighten the mood and not re-traumatize the viewers who probably already have viewed the bodycam footage, Oliver decided to offer levity instead of cynicism and covered a series of laughable, light topics such as a lost giant rabbit in Britain, Usher’s use of currency with his face on it in a Las Vegas strip club, Ralph Lauren’s consistent output of awful Olympic uniform design and an unfortunate full-frontal mooning by a Canadian politician.
“We wanted to give you a chance to laugh at the end of a truly demoralizing week,” Oliver said.
These comedic antics seemed to deliver some lightness as Oliver switched right into his usual dose of Fox News bashing. This week’s was in the form of a montage of the channel’s late-night commercials. All the adverts were promoting unnamed products to help libido and testosterone-deprived men, commentary on who Fox News’ viewers might be.
Oliver then segued to his main topic of the night: the world of personal bankruptcy and its endemic problems.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken an extreme financial toll on many Americans, and once pandemic-related financial assistance stops, more citizens will need the help of the bankruptcy process.
Bankruptcy is a legal process for people so deep in debt that they can file paperwork, liquidate certain assets to pay creditors and begin life anew. With the exception of social stigmatization and a credit score hit, individuals can expect to be erased of insurmountable financial debts.
After unravelling the bureaucratic labyrinth that bankruptcy entails, Oliver spent the rest of his segment detailing how it can make Americans’ lives worse, rather than better.
Briefly, Oliver dives into the two kinds of bankruptcy: Chapter 7, which is what the average American may more commonly think of, and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 might let borrowers hold on to a few essential assets, while the rest of the money is used to pay off debt.
Chapter 13 is better described as a reorganization of finances. This route might entail a repayment plan for three to five years, and if these payments are made in full and on time, these debts are discharged. Oliver notes, hoever, that if a borrower misses even just one payment, an entire case can be dismissed and the deal is off, landing the borrower back to square one.
Oliver observes that the reasons a person might file for bankruptcy can differ, but they can include unexpected medical bills, legal expenses, divorce and even a pandemic. The host challenges the idea that bankruptcy provides an easy way out and reveals that it can cost thousands of dollars just to declare bankruptcy, putting even more onus on the financially struggling.
He also adds that banks have a history of targeting Black debtors with higher costs for bankruptcy, as opposed to white debtors with similar financial profiles.
Today’s standards around bankruptcy originate from the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. In 2005, President George W. Bush signed the act into law, which Oliver says did not just make filing bankruptcy more byzantine but also added more than a dozen ways for debtors to make technical mistakes and have those cases be dismissed. As a result of this law, bankruptcy becomes more difficult to file, more expensive and oftentimes impossible to recover from.
“We’re living in a world where medical debt is out of control, and mailboxes are being stuffed with offers from banks telling them they’re pre-approved for a credit card. Oh look, this [credit card] has Snoopy on it,” Oliver joked.
So what can be done about the difficult state of bankruptcies? Oliver turns his attention to the Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2020 — which, if passed, would simplify and modernize the consumer bankruptcy system to make it easier for those who declare bankruptcy to get back on their feet. The act is backed by congressional Democrats, namely Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Jerrold Nadler. However, Oliver says that the act is hard-pressed to pass. President Joe Biden, who hails from a state where many credit card companies are headquartered, has had a history of opposing debt forgiveness. Adding to that, the bill also would need the requisite number of votes from Republicans, making it unlikely ever to come to fruition.
Oliver ultimately urges that the state of bankruptcies will become even more pressing as we enter a post-pandemic world, with an uncertain financial economy.
“We badly need to get our broken bankruptcy system working again, for people who desperately need a lifeline. And meanwhile while we wait for Congress, the least we can do is offer an alternate counseling resource that isn’t quite so insulting,” Oliver ends.
Watch the segment in the video above.
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