I think it's safe to say most people would prefer never to have to see a bankruptcy attorney or judge.
However, there is a group of bankruptcy professionals that you should rejoice in having your high school and college students see if they have the chance. They are volunteers for a relatively new outreach program called CARE (Credit Abuse Resistance Education). CARE was founded two years ago by John C. Ninfo II, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York.
Ninfo's idea is to send bankruptcy professionals -- judges, attorneys and trustees (the folks who handle the administration of bankruptcy cases) -- into high schools and colleges all over the country to share their personal experiences in dealing with people who have filed for bankruptcy protection.
What a brilliant idea.
Who better to counsel young people about the perils of overspending than the professionals who have to deal with the aftermath? Ninfo has a front-row seat to the devastation that credit card debt can wreak on families.
"I sat day after day in my courtroom and watched people come in with one, two and three times their annual income in credit card debt," the judge said in an interview. "We in the bankruptcy community are in the trenches and can tell [these students] firsthand about the reality of it all."
And the reality is that an unbelievable number of young people are finding themselves in deep debt before they hit their mid-thirties.
One research group calls them "Generation Broke."
America's population of young adults are slipping into a downward debt spiral, according to Demos, a nonpartisan, nonprofit New York-based research organization.
Demos recently released a report called "Generation Broke: The Growth of Debt Among Young Americans." Here's what the organization found among young adults age 25 to 34 after analyzing the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances and dozens of other sources:
* The average credit card debt increased 55 percent between 1992 and 2001, to $4,088.
* Credit card debt among the youngest adults (age 18 to 24) skyrocketed 104 percent during this same period, to $2,985.
* Seventy-one percent of young credit card holders revolve their balances every month, compared with 55 percent of all card holders.
* The average young-adult household spends almost one-quarter of every dollar earned on debt payments.
And the most troubling finding:
* Americans age 25 to 34 have the second-highest rate of bankruptcy (just after those age 35 to 44), indicating that Gen-Xers were more likely to file for bankruptcy than baby boomers were at the same age.
"Young adults starting off in the red will find that it impacts their financial security for years to come," said Tamara Draut, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos and lead author of the report.
CARE's Ninfo says bankruptcy professionals are uniquely positioned to educate young people about the causes and consequences of credit card debt. The judge wanted to specifically target high school and college students to catch them before they make the same mistakes made by the people he sees in his courtroom.
It was after seeing so many bankruptcy filings that listed amazing amounts of credit card debt that Ninfo said he began to question the debtors who came before him. What he found was troubling.
"There is no question that we see a lot of people who have had to file for bankruptcy because of some traditional catastrophic life event -- a job loss, divorce or a serious medical problem that was not fully funded by health insurance. But today, we are also seeing many people come though the courts who by their own admission are credit abusers," Ninfo said. "They had no catastrophic event. They got caught up in our competitive consumptive society and overspent and abused far-too-easy-to-obtain consumer credit."
In addition to real-life stories, Ninfo said CARE volunteers discuss budgeting and lecture the students about the addictiveness of overspending and living beyond one's means.
Since it began in 2002, the CARE program has reached more than 10,000 students in Rochester, N.Y., and Ninfo is working to expand the program nationwide. He wants a CARE program in every bankruptcy district in the country. Parts of the program have been started in almost 30 cities, including Anchorage, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Houston and Miami.
Look, if you are responsible for the education of high school or college students and you care about the way credit debt and consumerism could affect their financial future, contact CARE. Visit the organization's Web site at www.careprogram.us. I particularly love the "Credit Card Chronicles" written by two young people who have just started college. They periodically post reports and tips on handling money and credit card offers.
CARE is expanding, so check the "Schedule a Presentation" link on the organization's Web site to see if there are volunteers in your area. For additional information, or if you're a bankruptcy professional and you want to start a CARE program, contact Ninfo at jninfonywb.uscourts.gov or call him at 585-613-4200.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.