Did Bankruptcy Reform Fail? An Empirical Study of Consumer Debtors

59 Pages Posted: 7 Nov 2008 Last revised: 14 Jun 2016

Robert M. Lawless

University of Illinois College of Law

Angela K. Littwin

University of Texas School of Law

Katherine M. Porter

University of California - Irvine School of Law

John A. E. Pottow

University of Michigan Law School

Deborah Thorne

Ohio University - Department of Sociology

Elizabeth Warren

Harvard Law School

Date Written: October 17, 2008

Abstract

Just three years ago, Congress enacted controversial amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. The proponents claimed that the changes would drive the "can pay" debtors (of which there were supposedly many) from the bankruptcy courts with tough new income-based eligibility requirements. And indeed, after the enactment of the amendments, the number of people filing for bankruptcy plunged. In this Article - the initial report of the 2007 Consumer Bankruptcy Project - the authors analyze the first national, random sample of post-amendments bankruptcy filers. Contrary to the advocates' claim that high-income filers would be driven from the system and, by implication, that those remaining would have more modest incomes, the data show no change in the income levels of bankruptcy filers after the amendments. These findings thus cast doubt on the suggestion that those purged from the bankruptcy courts - approximately 800,000 in 2007 alone based on trend extrapolation - were high-income deadbeats; they instead appear to have been ordinary American families in serious financial distress. The data also show that debtors filing for bankruptcy in 2007 have even greater debt loads than their counterparts from 2001, a development that seems to track a national trend of increasing consumer debt. The findings thus align with at least two predictions of some legal scholars. The first is that the bankruptcy reform bill was not aimed at high-income abusers but was instead a general assault on all debtors, regardless of their financial circumstances. The second is that debtors are waiting longer - and incurring more debt - before ultimately seeking bankruptcy relief, consistent with the so-called "sweat box" theory of credit card lending.

Keywords: 2007 Consumer Bankruptcy Project, bankruptcy reform, consumer debtors, credit risk, predatory lending

JEL Classification: A10, D10, D18

Suggested Citation

Lawless, Robert M. and Littwin, Angela K. and Porter, Katherine M. and Pottow, John A. E. and Thorne, Deborah and Warren, Elizabeth, Did Bankruptcy Reform Fail? An Empirical Study of Consumer Debtors (October 17, 2008). American Bankruptcy Law Journal, Vol. 82, pp. 349-406, 2008; U of Michigan Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 08-023; U of Michigan Public Law Working Paper No. 133; U Illinois Law & Economics Research Paper No. LE08-034; U of Texas Law, Law and Econ Research Paper No. 136; Harvard Law and Economics Discussion Paper; U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-50. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1286284

Robert M. Lawless

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

Angela K. Littwin

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States

Katherine M. Porter

University of California - Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason Dr.
Ste. 1000
Irvine, CA 92697-1000
United States

John A. E. Pottow (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States
734-647-3736 (Phone)

Deborah Thorne

Ohio University - Department of Sociology ( email )

Athens, OH 45701-2979
United States

Elizabeth Warren

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-3101 (Phone)
617-496-6118 (Fax)

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