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Stories from the Front Lines

posted by Debb Thorne

Since February, I've been overseeing much of the data collection for the current Consumer Bankruptcy Project study. The process has been amazing, exciting, overwhelming, and often very depressing. (I frequently joke (only partially) with our interviewers that the cost of anti-depressants should have been included in the grant applications!) On a typical day, I talk with maybe half a dozen folks who have recently filed and want to explain their circumstances. Each is convinced that the circumstances behind their bankruptcies were unique--in fact, few of them were. Most have confronted a death, a job loss, or illness--and none of them ever thought this would happen to them. The story of a woman with whom I spoke on Wednesday is all-too common.

She is in her early-70s and has a 10th grade education. She said that coming from a broken family made it impossible for her to stay in school. When she was 57, her husband died unexpectedly. He had been the family's sole-provider. They had no savings or retirement. She now gets just over $700 a month in social security, but tells me that even though she's over 65, she still has to pay nearly $75 a month for Medicare, and more for prescriptions and doctor/hospital visits. (She's diabetic and has high blood pressure.) She told me that in the years before she filed, she did a "stupid thing" and used her credit cards to pay for groceries and prescriptions. For the past three years, she was enrolled in a consumer counseling program and repaying her debts to the tune of $451 a month--leaving her with about $300 for housing, food, medical costs. She said that she just couldn't continue to do that any longer because it was either pay that bill or buy groceries and her medicine--so she filed. She was so ashamed. (I was appalled that a credit counseling service would even consider taking this woman's money! But then again, maybe she was determined.) She insisted that she wasn't a "bad person," and as proof, said that she had never even cheated on her taxes and that they "always followed the rules."

I hear essentially this same story from many of our older widowed female respondents. They have no wealth, minimal income, no husband, and health problems that they cannot afford to manage. (But they do demonstrate incredible determination and integrity.) And they always apologize for filing. No apology needed. These women find themselves saddled with debt not because they were profligate or had done "stupid things," but for other, more complex, reasons: wage discrimination, the fact that being a full-time mom does not pay a salary or provide benefits, a broken healthcare system, skyrocketing housing costs, and a general social apathy for the basic needs of our citizens.

INow if you'll excuse me, I think I hear a name-brand antidepressant pill calling (which I can afford only because the university provides relatively-affordable heath insurance.)


I am a panel Trustee in the District of New Jersey. Every time a debtor cries during a First Meeting of Creditors (usually 2-3 times each session), I want to send a copy of the recording to Congress! Instead of wanting anti-depressants, I think "there, but for the grace of g-d go I....." It is a very sobering experience. It makes any solvent person very grateful for their lot in life.

Perhaps I infer too much, but it sounds like you are surprised that the credit counseling service did not suggest bankruptcy. I am not. Some are open-minded enough to do so, but in my experience most are not. This country is replete with people who know virtually nothing about bankruptcy, except that it is shameful. If more people knew and understood their rights, all recent records for bankruptcy filing rates would soon look small.

Many fundamentalist Christians quote the Bible verse
"The wicked borrow, but don't repay when referring to bankruptcy.
I don't belive most people who file are wicked.
Too bad there is not more Bible verses quoted about the poor and
those who take advantage them . I belive Jesus had some very strong words about that!

The only time a pre-bapca credit counseling agency advised one of my clients to file was when there was LOTS of exempt equity. They actually advised the woman to file a Chapter 7.

I find bankruptcy MUCH less depressing then my former practice. At least there are solutions to offer.

Make that "non-exempt equity"

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