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The Gendered Slide into Bankruptcy

posted by Debb Thorne

I'm wrapping up an article on the gendered nature of the slide into personal bankruptcy. It's taken from a chapter of my dissertation--which was the result of interviews with bankrupt couples. Since so little of what sociologists write actually gets read by others (either in the general public or across disciplines), I thought I'd take this chance to share my findings.

About three-quarters of the time, the wives were the ones who managed the family's financial crisis as they slid into bankruptcy. (This is same proportion of women who manage the bills in lower income families that are not experiencing financial crises. See Lillian Rubin's (1976) World's of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family.) The women in my sample dealt with the debt collectors, juggled the budget, and eventually were the ones most likely to explore and propose the option of bankruptcy. The husbands 1) flatly refused to help with the bills (they said that they didn't like dealing with such depressing things and that they had other work to do---of course, so did their wives); 2) handed the phone to their wives when the collectors called (or cursed at the collectors and hung up---unfortunately, this didn't solve the problem), and; 3) "let" their wives research bankruptcy and often insisted that the women meet with the bankruptcy attorney.

The implications of this gendered division of labor for the women were extreme stress, paralyzing fear, and depression so bad that some prayed for death or considered suicide.

I would guess that for many of you who read this blog, and have the opportunity to work with families who are sliding into bankruptcy, my findings are probably not much of a surprise. However, for those of you who were unaware of the gendered nature of the slide, I hope my findings will translate to compassion for and patience with the wives with whom you deal. 

Finally, I am also concerned about the gendered effects of the BAPCPA mandated credit counseling/financial management courses. I have no doubt that the majority of husbands will opt out of these financial chores as well. Given that, how will wives manage the additional work and strain that will result? My guess is that those who pushed the reform were completely unaware of the fact that it would be the wives who would bear the brunt of the increased workload. I would also guess that even if they were aware, they could have cared less.


Debb, I'd be fascinated to know how your work relates to the classic view that men control all the money and keep it all secret & that women only find out what a pickle they're in at the time of death or divorce (he /cancelled/ the /insurance?/), Was it never true? --true once but not now true? A class thing?--also to work like Sen's arguing that the best index of women's well-being is a place in the market economy outside the home.

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