The bankruptcy myth

Erie County extension educator Donna Green spends part of her time teaching people who have filed for bankruptcy how to manage their
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

Erie County extension educator Donna Green spends part of her time teaching people who have filed for bankruptcy how to manage their money better.

But Green says she's gotten an unexpected education herself on why people file for bankruptcy.

She said she used to assume most people become bankrupt because they bought too many high-end TV sets or too much new furniture or too many new outfits.

Instead, Green said everyone she has met through her job filed for bankruptcy because of medical bills that were too high to pay, because of going through a divorce or because of a job loss.

"She's absolutely right on. I'm not surprised," said Deborah Thorne, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio University who specializes in studying consumer bankruptcies.

The "super consumers" who brings bankruptcies upon themselves are largely a myth, although it is true that people who have significant credit card debt are more vulnerable if they suffer a serious financial reversal, Thorne said.

Big medical bills are a common cause of bankruptcy filings, Thorne said.

In 2005, Thorne and three other scholars wrote a study, "Illness and Injury as Contributors to Bankruptcy" that examined bankruptcy filings in 2001 and concluded that medical reasons caused half of them.

Thorne said she is working on a follow-up study that isn't finished yet, but said she doubts the situation has changed much. If anything, problems with medical coverage likely have gotten worse.

A Web site that tracks bankruptcy filings, bankruptcy-statistics.com, stated in a March 2008 report that Ohio ranks ninth among the 50 states in per capita bankruptcy filings so far this year.

In 2007, Ohio had 49,473 bankruptcy filings, ranking it sixth in per capita bankruptcy filings, the site said.

Thorne said she is not familiar with the Web site, but said the numbers sound accurate. All reports rank Ohio close to the top in housing foreclosures and bankruptcies, she said.

Thorne said only comprehensive medical insurance reform will keep Americans from going broke when they have serious medical problems. Tinkering with the system by making it easier to buy private insurance, for example, won't fix the problem, she said.

Let's say an Ohioan suffers from a terminal illness and is forced to leave work. Under a federal law known as COBRA, people who leave their jobs can keep their medical insurance for 18 months by paying the premiums.

"Can you afford the COBRA payments? Odds are no, because you are no longer working. You are left with nothing," Thorne said.

Green, who said she went without health insurance for awhile after going through a divorce because she could not afford COBRA, said she has worked with about 25 people so far who are obtaining financial counseling.

The latest revision of the federal bankruptcy law requires two hours of counseling for everyone going through the court process, and the OSU Extension Office is the provider for Erie County. There are many other providers in Ohio, including the extension offices in Ottawa and Sandusky counties.

The Erie County program, "New $tart for Financial Success," costs $40 and offers suggestions on how to set goals, save money and track expenses.

For example, a form called a "Dollar Tracker" provides a place for people to write down all of their expenses every day.

"When we make them write down every single thing, it's really eye-opening at the end of the week," Green said.