November 20, 2020

I interviewed 48 bankrupt Americans

By ch45sst2

The people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection had an 18% bankruptcy rate – twice as high as the national average – according to a Washington Post investigation. A quarter of the rioters had been sued by a creditor, and 1 in 5 faced losing their home to foreclosure.

As a scholar of American political economy who focuses on middle-class economic precarity, I found this discovery unsurprising.

Since 2017 I have interviewed 48 Americans going through Chapter 13 personal bankruptcy – the kind of bankruptcy primarily filed by people making above-median income or trying to save a home from foreclosure – and watched about 500 bankruptcy court proceedings. When talking about their bankruptcies with my research participants, I also touched on their life histories and politics.

Most did not blame the government or America’s lack of social safety net for their troubles. Instead, they blamed the “entitlement” of others for ruining things for “hardworking Americans.” More often than not, I found, the “entitled” Americans they had in mind were members of minority groups.

Who’s on welfare? Not me
This kind of racialized blame was most explicit among white, middle-aged Trump supporters, who comprised about one-third of my research participants.

In 2017, I interviewed a white mechanic and father of three from Utah who had filed personal bankruptcy after taking out payday loans to get treatment for his suicidal teenage son. His insurance covered only group therapy, so he paid US$5,000 out of pocket to send his son to a specialized treatment facility.

After listening to his story, I asked the mechanic – I’ll call him Greg – what he saw as the biggest challenges facing America.

“What drives me crazy is these people saying they need reparations from the Civil War,” Greg said, asserting that slavery was generations past and criticizing the idea that anyone today could feel entitled to compensation.

“That’s the problem with today’s society, kids especially: entitlement,” he concluded.