Last year, 7 percent of all U.S. workers — and more than one in 10 Americans in the prime working years, ages 35 to 44 — lost up to 25 percent of their after-tax wages before they ever saw their paychecks, according to a new ADP payroll survey conducted for NPR and Pro Publica.

The result: Families already struggling to cover housing, food and clothing costs are stretched even further because their pay is being docked, often because of old medical or credit card bills. These bleak findings should underscore the urgency of the need to make state and federal reforms before more Americans are pushed into poverty for the crime of owing money.

The ADP report, the first large-scale study of wage garnishment, presents startling information. While child support still accounts for roughly half of all garnishments, an increasing number of workers are having their wages withheld to pay consumer debt.

In fact, more people who earn $25,000 to $40,000 per year were garnished in 2013 for consumer debt than for child support. A typical case involves an Omaha, Neb., couple who are engaged to be married and who pay a total of $760 a month out of their $13-per-hour paychecks toward her debts for ER migraine and kidney care and his 10-year-old laptop loan.

There are few legal safeguards for this pair and others like them. A federal law dating to 1968 protects from garnishment only those workers who make $11,000 per year or less; it also mandates that creditors garnish no more than a quarter of a debtor’s net income.

States may limit seizures to a smaller percentage or amount. Maine, for example, ensures that a worker will retain either 75 percent of their after-tax paycheck or an amount equal to the federal minimum wage, whichever is more. This means that a Maine debtor’s weekly paycheck won’t fall below $290. That’s still appallingly low, though — it’s below poverty level for most households.

The nonprofit National Consumer Law Center recommends that states protect up to 90 percent of a worker’s after-tax income or an amount equal to 80 times the federal or state minimum wage. In the current political climate, it may be overly optimistic to expect Augusta to make this extensive a change, but Maine could take smaller steps toward reform now and set the consumer group’s guideline as a long-term goal.

Productivity has increased nearly 23 percent since 2000, but the median employee’s hourly wage has inched up by only 0.5 percent. Neither Maine nor federal consumer finance law reflects the economic reality for most Americans, and it’s past time to stop punishing them for this fact.

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