NEW YORK (MainStreet) — For years economists and financial advisers have scratched their heads and wondered how so many Americans wound up in bankruptcy. Studies have shown that bankruptcy isn't all that hard to avoid, but it's the human condition, new data says, that is often the main driver.
The numbers show that total U.S. bankruptcies are in decline, and that’s good news. According to the American Bankruptcy Institute, U.S. bankruptcies dropped by 12% from November 2010 to November 2011.
While the total number of U.S. consumer bankruptcies haven’t been tallied yet, the ABI estimates the number should come in lower than 1.4 million.
But even 1.4 million may be way too many – especially since consumers have more control than they may think over declaring bankruptcy. That’s a conclusion drawn by researchers at the University of Arkansas.
Tim Tarvin, a legal professor at the university’s law school, says that the crux of the matter is this: It’s overwhelmingly individuals, not corporations, that fall into bankruptcy. Often, it’s the individual’s own fault, as Americans wait far too long to look into bankruptcy protection, primarily out of shame and wounded pride.
“It’s very sad,” Tarvin explained in an official statement. “It's not unusual for people to break down in the interview setting with the student attorneys who are representing them. These families have been working so hard trying to figure out how to pay off their debt, and it’s just not working. The cash just doesn’t flow. The money isn’t there, and in most cases, it hasn’t been there for a long time.”
Tarvin, who helps run a bankruptcy recovery clinic at the university, cites the 2003 book, The Two Income Trap, by the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren. In her book, Warren says that half of the individuals she interviewed wouldn’t even admit they were in bankruptcy, despite the fact that it was on the public record and easily accessible by Warren or anyone else who cared to look.
It’s all about shame, Tarvin says, noting that consumers who admit to being in bankruptcy and have a financial plan to deal with it are much more likely to get on their feet again than those who go “underground,” as he puts it.
But blaming the bankruptcy court instead of looking in the mirror is a big mistake, he adds. “To blame bankruptcy for the debtor’s insolvency and non-payment to the creditor is like blaming the coroner for the death,” Tarvin says. “He – the coroner – is simply pronouncing that the person is deceased. Likewise, a bankruptcy discharge issued by the judge is merely a determination that the debtor is financially unable to pay his debts.”
Until bankrupt Americans acknowledge their situation, and take steps to prevent it, or manage it better once they’re in bankruptcy, their financial situations will continue to suffer. That’s a shame – because nobody ever paid their mortgage bill or put food on the table with wounded pride.