Portraits of Bankruptcy Filers

78 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2021 Last revised: 26 Jul 2022

See all articles by Pamela Foohey

Pamela Foohey

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

Robert M. Lawless

University of Illinois College of Law

Deborah Thorne

University of Idaho

Date Written: March 18, 2021


One in ten adult Americans have turned to the consumer bankruptcy system for help. For the past almost forty years, the only systematic data collection about the people who file bankruptcy comes from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project (CBP), for which we serve as co-principal investigators. In this Article, we use CBP data from 2013 to 2019 to describe who is using the bankruptcy system, providing the first comprehensive overview of bankruptcy filers in thirty years. We use principal component analysis to leverage these data to identify distinct groups of people who file bankruptcy. This technique allows us to situate the distinctions among filers’ financial and household situations within what bankruptcy laws and courts can and cannot provide. We critique the consumer bankruptcy system, based on the totality of people who have used it recently, to identify avenues for reforming bankruptcy and to underscore the broader economic, racial, and social issues that consumer bankruptcy filings highlight.

Keywords: bankruptcy, consumer debtor, consumer debt, consumer credit, debt collection, mortgages, auto loans, student loans, financial fragility, racial disparity, gender disparity, divorce, garnishment, repossession, foreclosure, COVID-19, legal reform

JEL Classification: D10, K35, K36

Suggested Citation

Foohey, Pamela and Lawless, Robert M. and Thorne, Deborah, Portraits of Bankruptcy Filers (March 18, 2021). 56 Georgia Law Review 573 (2022) , University of Illinois College of Law Legal Studies Research Paper 21-08, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3807592 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3807592

Pamela Foohey (Contact Author)

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

55 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10003
United States

Robert M. Lawless

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

Deborah Thorne

University of Idaho ( email )

Moscow, ID 83844
United States

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