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Should Congress help borrowers?

Lawmakers are finding it difficult to mount large-scale help for homeowners.

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Faced with a deep slump in housing and credit markets, Washington has found it easier so far to throw lifelines to big business than to ordinary Americans.

The Federal Reserve, for example, has engineered an unprecedented Wall Street rescue that involved an investment bank.

This month, the US Congress is starting to consider in earnest whether comparable assistance is warranted on Main Street.

Arguably, small borrowers face challenges that are every bit as acute as those of financial firms. Home values are declining and foreclosures are now occurring at record volumes – and those trends pose a threat to the health of the economy.

But it is proving difficult for lawmakers to mount large-scale help for homeowners for several reasons. One big hurdle is pragmatic: In some regions of the US, home values are still declining so fast that even a deep reduction in mortgage payments may help lenders more than homeowners.

Another is the question of fairness. Should taxpayer money be spent on borrowers who may have been unwise? The answer depends partly on partisan ideologies and on differing views of the risks to the economy if nothing is done.

"Any intervention is going to let some folks do better than they would have otherwise," says Dan Immergluck, a housing expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

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