Last week, Henderson, the mayor of Jennings, picked up her paycheck at city hall, and discovered that $185 was gone — garnished by MSD. The sewer district had tracked her down at her new job and taken the maximum allowed by law, a quarter of her biweekly pay.

Without it, Henderson said, she’s not sure she’ll be able to cover all her expenses, which include caring for her 8-year-old son. “I’m going to have to scrap and scrounge and rob Peter to pay Paul here,” she said.

When asked if she’d ever heard of the “head of family” exemption, Henderson said she hadn’t, but vowed to submit the forms as soon as possible to reduce the garnishment.

She was surprised to learn that she wasn’t alone — the pay of a council member had been seized by MSD last week, too. Henderson said she’d be sure to tell her about the exemption, since the council member had a son of her own.

“We’re all in the same boat,” she said. “It’s the black community.”


Paul Kiel covers business and the economy for ProPublica, reporting on the foreclosure crisis, consumer debt and other financial issues. Annie Waldman is a senior reporting fellow. She recently graduated with honors from the dual masters program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and the School of Journalism.

Jonathan Stray contributed to this story.

Produced by Hannah Birch and Emily Martinez.