More older, educated Americans filing for bankruptcy

Think bankruptcy is only for the uneducated or the elderly? Think again.

Tess Vigeland: When you're out of work, it's easy to fall behind on bills. And for millions of people that's meant just one option: Bankruptcy. But a report (PDF) out this week from the Institute for Financial Literacy shows a surprising new group of people are not only thinking about it, they're doing it.

Leslie Linfield is the Institute's executive director.

Leslie Linfield: Thank you so much for having me.

Vigeland: I have to tell you that the poverty census information came out on Tuesday, and I was busily tweeting about that. And then I saw your tweet come across with this bankruptcy information and I just wanted to bury my head in my hands.

Linfield: I know. I sometimes feel as though I'm the prophet of doom when I'm publishing out our demographics research. It does get a bit bleak.

Vigeland: Well, let's start by talking about some of the basics of this study. What were you looking to learn from it?

Linfield: We started compiling this data five years ago, when the bankruptcy law changed. Who files bankruptcy? What does the American debtor look like? And the things that surprised me, definitely, educational attainment. You know, there's this been this myth that if you go to school and you get the degree, you're somehow going to be protected. Those who didn't go to college would not fare as well as you would. This myth seems to be eroding. I mean, the majority of people who still file bankruptcy don't have college degrees. But we are seeing that the people with advanced degrees and college degrees in general, their rates of filing are ticking up.

Vigeland: By what percentage?

Linfield: 20 percent increase in the five-year period. And that's a significant increase.

Vigeland: One of the other standouts, I think, from your study -- at least that I noticed -- was that there is a new age gap in who is now declaring bankruptcy. Can you take us through that?

Linfield: That we've been watching -- and this is one of those, if I could get to the tallest mountain in the country and yell the population of bankruptcy debtors are older. And this year, the majority of them were suddenly 45 to 54, where for the prior 10 years, they had actually been 35 to 44. And to me, that's a alarming.

Vigeland: Why?

Linfield: Because we have to remember the whole concept of bankruptcy. It's about an economic fresh start. The ability to start over. Now, if I'm 30 and I have to file bankruptcy because things have gotten so difficult, I still have 20+ years in front of me to start over. If I'm 54, do I really have the same amount of time in front of me? And that's what I'm fearful of.

Vigeland: Any bright spots that you can point to in this report? I mean, I don't know, is it possible to have a bright spot in a bankruptcy report? Probably not.

Linfield: You know, I always try to remind people, bankruptcy was probably one of the first individual rights in the Constitution. We in this country believe in new beginnings, and that's what bankruptcy is about. You know, when I see this and I talk about this aging population, I want academics and researchers and policymakers to look at this and say, "OK, let's find out the root problem here." So we can begin to create solutions and let's make sure these people never have to get here. That is positive.

Vigeland: Leslie Linfield is executive director of the Institute for Financial Literacy. We've been talking about their recent report on the demographics of bankruptcy in this country. Thank you so much for coming in.

Linfield: Thank you so much for having me.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...