On a recent Saturday afternoon, the mayor of Jennings, a St. Louis suburb of about 15,000, settled in before a computer in the empty city-council chambers. Yolonda Fountain Henderson, 50, was elected last spring as the city’s first black mayor.
On the screen was a list of every debt-collection lawsuit against a resident of her city, at least 4,500 in just five years. Henderson asked to see her own street. On her block of 16 modest ranch-style homes, lawsuits had been filed against the occupants of eight. “That’s my neighbor across the street,” she said, pointing to one line on the screen.
And then she saw her own suit. Henderson, a single mother, fell behind on her sewer bill after losing her job a few years ago, and the utility successfully sued her. That judgment was listed, as well as how one day the company seized $382 from her credit-union account—all she had, but not enough to pay off the debt.