First Person

I Went Into Debt for a Christmas Gift

As I neared the checkout counter at Belden Jewelers, the sales associate who was helping me asked, “And did you want to pay for this in full or did you want to finance it?”

“Finance it? What do you mean?” I looked at the box in my hand, which held a sterling silver and diamond ring I planned to give my girlfriend for Christmas in a few weeks. She was elsewhere in the mall with our friend Katie; we’d separated so we could buy each other gifts.

The associate explained that I could apply for financing and pay for the ring in installments, which were interest-free for the first 12 months. I had the slightly more than $300 that the ring cost in cash; it was one of the nicest rings in my budget. (All the white gold ones were too much money.) But if I financed it, which I hadn’t even considered as an option, I could afford to spend a little more on my other gifts and even save some for the new year. I could start putting away money for appliances I needed in my apartment or a used car to drive to an off-campus internship.

I asked for an application and after a few minutes of processing, I was approved. I had started using my first credit card, a Discover Student card, only a few months prior, and it wasn’t maxed out yet, so I genuinely believed I could make the decision responsibly.

After I left the store, I met back up with my friend Krista, my shopping partner while I looked for my girlfriend’s gifts. “That was the most money I’ve ever spent on Macey,” I said, nervous and excited in equal measure. “I hope she loves it.”

I was too embarrassed to admit I’d opened a store credit card to pay for it; it seemed like something my college friends, who all came from middle-class families, would know better than to do. “Don’t spend money you don’t have” was a wise adage their parents shared when they taught them tips like paying for a car in cash. My dad taught me how to return items to Walmart without a receipt if we were running low on money between paychecks and needed an extra $20 for milk and bread.

A few weeks later, Macey and I spent our first Christmas Day together and I surprised her with the ring during a short, chilly walk. I didn’t tell her that I’d financed the ring or how many hours working in the reading and writing center on campus it would take to pay off. I didn’t say that I’d wanted to get her a white gold ring with a larger karat diamond. She’d also given me her priciest gift to date, a sterling silver replica Time Turner from the Harry Potter franchise I’d been obsessed with for years but couldn’t afford.

Instead, I said that I loved her and wanted to marry her someday, and asked her if she wanted the same thing. We both cried and she said yes, but the reality of ever having enough money to get married eluded even my colorful, wildly hopeful imagination. We both grew up with single parents with underpaying jobs who couldn’t foot the bill for our college education. We would graduate in a year and a half with student loan debt (and me with thousands of dollars in credit card debt just to buy necessities like books, snow boots, and groceries).

The diamond promise ring was an irresponsible romantic lifeline; I was betting on our future. Someday, I would pay off the ring. Someday, we could afford to get married. Someday, I would be able to spend more for white gold, Macey’s favorite. None of that felt true as I went home to my dad’s over winter break to collection notices and service shut off warnings; business was slow for a cab driver during the rise of Uber and Lyft and in the wake of the recession.

It took me about a year and a half to pay off the Belden Jewelers credit card, which I promptly closed. Eventually, I admitted to Macey that I’d taken out a loan to get her ring. She told me that she never wanted me to feel pressured to spend money on her or use a credit card to buy her presents, she just wanted to spend time with me. She told me she’d sometimes felt the same stress: That the cost of her gift reflected how much she loved me, and she worried about spending less on my gifts than I did on hers.

The diamond promise ring was an irresponsible romantic lifeline.

It’s easy to write-off the monetary value of holiday gifts or the importance of deals on Black Friday when you’re financially comfortable. When I was poor, that fact haunted me like an ever-present ghost in my relationships, which felt transactional to me even when my loved ones insisted they weren’t keeping track and were doing me favors out of love. That was easy for them to say, when I noticed it was always me who needed rides to the library to use their free printers or me who carefully calculated the cost of my meals and couldn’t afford to split the check evenly.

This year, Macey and I are celebrating our first holiday season as wives, three months after our wedding. In wedding planning, we were both clear: We wouldn’t let any insecurities or the grim hand of capitalism make us feel like we had to do anything we couldn’t or didn’t want to afford, and we didn’t go into debt to pay for any of it. Even if it meant we had to answer questions about why our reception was buffet style or why we didn’t have an open bar.

She and I are now the kind of financially comfortable I could only dream about my entire childhood, meaning we don’t have enough money to own a home and we still have mountains of student debt, but we pay all our bills on time each month and we can even afford to travel if we plan well. But as November crept closer, I still felt the pressure surrounding me just like it had when we were spending our first Christmas together. Didn’t my gifts have to be epic?

One day while Macey was at work (she commutes and I work from home), I sent her a text: What if we did a lowkey Christmas this year, just one gift and one book? We could save money to travel in 2020 and there are no physical gifts I really want.

It is an incredibly privileged position to be in, and I know that. When you have enough of a financial cushion to go on nice dates when one person gets promoted or to buy a new bookshelf as soon as you need it, holidays don’t have to be about prioritizing everything you need for the entire year. Macey and I got a lot of the home goods on our list this year between our wedding presents and a sponsored article I wrote for Bed Bath & Beyond that came with a couple thousand dollars worth of free store merchandise. We’re at a point where we have more than we can comfortably fit in our one-bedroom apartment.

But back when we were both poor or broke, Christmas could be the only time of year when we actually got big ticket items we needed, or pricey experience gifts like a couples’ massage. I once waited months to get a new purse in the hopes that Macey might get it for me in December, and another year, my Christmas gift from my dad was a fancy date for the two of us. We ate sushi at a restaurant with three dollar signs on Google, played games at Dave & Busters, and took professional photos together.

Macey texted back: That sounds good. It was harder than I expected to fight the urge to shower her with multiple expensive gifts after promising not to, especially when I came across a $1,500 moon necklace on Instagram (that I absolutely can’t afford but I know she’d love).

Our stockings this year will be filled with the promise of a two-week honeymoon in 2020 and love letters to each other. Capitalism tells me that isn’t enough, but I’m not listening.

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Analysis

The Trump Administration Has a New Stealth Approach to Kicking People Off Disability

Even though I’m a lawyer, receiving a letter in the mail from the Social Security Administration still triggers a panic attack. My heart races, I get nauseous, and my hands shake.

Lately it’s gotten worse. A letter earlier this month made me feel suddenly lightheaded as my vision started to fade. As I sat on the floor, my mind raced through all of the potential bad news the envelope could contain for a disabled Supplemental Security Income recipient like myself.

Many more people could soon be in the same position, more often. A new proposal from the Social Security Administration would cut $2.6 billion dollars over the next decade from the two core programs it runs that comprise the disability safety net: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The cuts would start with letters — 2.6 million more of them.

A letter is the first notice a disabled recipient of SSDI or SSI gets that they’ve been selected by Social Security to undergo a “continuing disability review” (CDR). As the agency puts it, CDRs are used to “determine if disabled beneficiaries still meet the medical requirements for eligibility.” In other words, a CDR is a kind of “are you still disabled enough for SSI or SSDI” audit.

After the audit, if Social Security believes a beneficiary’s medical condition has improved such that they no longer meet Social Security’s stringent criteria for disability, their benefits are terminated. It is now much easier for Social Security to say that a disabled person has medically improved thanks to a 2017 rule change that allows the agency to disregard medical evidence from a beneficiary’s own doctors. Benefits are also terminated if the disabled person does not respond to the CDR.

The Social Security Administration is proposing a dramatic ramp up in the number of CDRs it conducts, adding an additional 2.6 million of them over the next decade. And that’s not the only change Social Security wants to make to the CDR process.

When an applicant is approved for disability benefits, Social Security assigns them to a category that determines how often they must go through a CDR. If Social Security thinks a disabled person’s medical condition is expected to improve, they set a CDR for every 6 to 18 months. If it’s possible the medical condition will improve, they set a CDR for every three years. And if the person’s medical condition is not expected to improve, they set a CDR for every 5 to 7 years.

Social Security officials want to create a new category, “medical improvement likely,” that will get a CDR every two years. And they propose to move hundreds of thousands of people from less frequent CDR categories into the new category.

The vast majority of disabled people receiving SSDI and SSI are not represented by counsel through the CDR process. The maximum amount that SSI will provide to a disabled beneficiary is just 74 percent of the federal poverty level — currently $12,490 for an individual. As of November 2019, the average SSDI benefit was just $14,855 per year. Most SSDI and SSI beneficiaries simply do not have the money to hire someone to help them navigate the CDR process. Instead, they find themselves facing the byzantine, and all too often hostile, bureaucracy of the Social Security Administration on their own — something that I find daunting even with the benefit of a law degree.

SSA provides no estimates of the number of people who would be affected.
– Kathleen Romig

Social Security is also proposing to focus the targeting of those CDRs on disabled children, people with certain medical conditions such as leukemia, and disabled older adults. Under the new rule, many disabled children would face a mandatory CDR at six years old and another mandatory CDR at 12 years old.

In both adults and children, the rule would change the category of certain mental health conditions including anxiety-related disorders, depressive, bipolar and related disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and impulse control disorders to a CDR every two years.

But Social Security has not provided estimates of how many disabled people from each of those groups will be impacted. In fact, Social Security hasn’t released any estimates of how many people will be impacted, period, only the number of CDRs it expects to undertake. (A single person could face multiple CDRs in that time period.)

Kathleen Romig, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explained by email that “SSA provides no estimates of the number of people who would be affected. No number of people who will be subject to additional reviews. No number of people who will be terminated.”

Instead, Social Security just published the projected cuts of $2.6 billion. That leads Romig to believe the agency has data it isn’t releasing: “They DO have a number of program dollars saved — in fact, two numbers, one for SSDI and one for SSI. I think it stands to reason that SSA has estimated how many disability beneficiaries would be cut off and they are withholding it. I’ve never seen the estimated number of people left out of a proposed rule; it’s a vital piece of information.”

The rule is open for public comment on regulations.gov until January 31, 2020.

 

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Feature

A Pesticide the EPA Won’t Ban Is Sickening Low-Income Californians of Color

As a child growing up in Arvin, California, Gabriel Duarte played with his brothers in an orchard 15 feet from his family’s front door. Today he plays in a prison yard. Duarte believes these two points on his 20-year timeline are related.

Earlier this year, Duarte contacted me after reading an op-ed I’d written about the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos. I’d discovered that the likely reason for each of my three children’s brain malformations was due to my acute exposure, in 1989, to a flea “bomb” containing chlorpyrifos. Duarte believes his ADHD and impulsivity issues are the result of his chronic exposure to chlorpyrifos in his home, school and work environments.

Human and animal studies link chlorpyrifos exposure to structural damage to the brain, neurobehavioral deficits, asthma, diminished IQ, and a wide range of developmental disabilities in children. It has also been linked to heart disease, lung cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and the lowering of sperm counts in adults. Based on my investigative research, and interviews with Duarte along with dozens of other residents in the San Joaquin Valley, I’m left to draw the all-too-obvious conclusion that communities with a higher percentage of residents who are low income are at greater risk of being exposed to harmful pesticides and other environmental toxins. And the issue of race is an inextricable co-factor.

Duarte’s alcoholic father abandoned the family when Duarte was nine, about the time his mother was diagnosed with leukemia. (Both pediatric and adult leukemias have also been linked to pesticide exposure.) Duarte, the third of four children, became the man of the house and remembers making meals for his sick mother and biking to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for his mom and younger brother, who had severe asthma.

Both Duarte and his brother were diagnosed with ADHD by a school psychologist at Di Giorgio Elementary School. Duarte does not recall being provided treatment or support from the school, which likely speaks to Di Giorgio School District being highly under-resourced, given the district’s meager tax base. Like their home on Richardson Road, the school abuts an orchard where pesticides are routinely sprayed.

And if exposure at home and school weren’t enough, before leaving the family, the boys’ father was a fieldworker who would have likely brought home pesticide residue on his clothing and shoes. Duarte himself worked as a field hand as a teenager and also at a golf course collecting stray golf balls. (Chlorpyrifos is widely used in non-agricultural settings like golf courses and golf balls are commonly thought to be a source of pesticide residue.)

The EPA banned chlorpyrifos in household products in 2000. However, its use in agriculture was allowed to continue. It’s often small, rural, low-income communities of color that bear the cumulative impacts of pesticide exposure and environmental degradation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in communities like Arvin, located in Kern County at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley — the most productive agricultural region in the country. Millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos are used each year nationwide. In 2016, 1.1 million pounds were used in California; more than a quarter of that total was used in Kern County alone.

According to the 2010 Census — about the time Duarte would have been taking on the man-of-the-house role — Hispanic or Latinx persons made up 92.7 percent of Arvin residents. Arvin’s average per capita income in 2010 was $9,241, or only 19 percent of the U.S. average of $48,880 at the time. Today, the percentage of families living below the poverty line in Arvin is more than double the national average.

This pattern of unequal protection constitutes environmental racism.

That low-income communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the health effects of chemical toxins such as chlorpyrifos is not news, nor is it an accident. People of color disproportionately hold the most physically demanding, unpleasant, and low-paying jobs. The roots of the problem trace back to the legacy of state-sanctioned racial segregation. For instance, communities with high Latinx representation such as Salinas, Visalia, Santa Rosa, and San Luis Obispo, California, rank among the lowest U.S. metropolitan areas in employment opportunity. Not only have low-income families and people of color been segregated according to residence and work, they’ve consequently been forced to play host to the worst kinds of environmental burdens.

Both of Angel Garcia’s parents worked the fields when he was growing up. He is now the head of the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety. “If you drive through the Central Valley from town to town you will realize the proximity of these homes to the fields,” says Garcia. “You can speak to many community residents who will tell you ‘oh, it’s that time of the year where I have to close my windows, shut my door, not let the kids go outside.’ It’s almost normalized but I don’t want to say it’s normalized because I feel like it not normal. It’s just so common.”

Sacrifice zones are hot spots of chemical pollution where residents live or work immediately adjacent to heavily polluted industries or military bases. The Gulf Coast post-Deepwater Horizon, Cancer Alley in Lousiana, a Tesla plant built on a Superfund site in Buffalo, and polluted neighborhoods surrounding Houston’s shipping channel are but a handful of examples of locales where public officials have turned a blind eye to extreme environmental contamination in minority-dominated areas so that society at large can reap the rewards of a robust economy. This pattern of unequal protection constitutes environmental racism.

The San Joaquin Valley in general and Kern County in particular are examples of sacrifice zones. Here, the burden of the vibrant agricultural economy is carried by those predominantly-Latinx workers who pick and pack the fruits and vegetables that feed America. The health risks associated with these jobs and attendant living conditions have been well documented, but perhaps no more strikingly than by the CHARGE study conducted by UC Davis’ MIND Institute, and led by epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto, PhD.

Dr. Hertz-Picciotto and her team questioned mothers living in California about what their health was like before and during pregnancy, linking this information to another set of data that the state keeps, a pesticide-use reporting system. Their findings — that the incidence of developmental disability increases significantly in areas where pesticides are applied — bolster previous research and have dire implications for families working and living in agricultural communities near where pesticides are applied.

Garcia and others, such as Nayamin Martinez of the Central California Environmental Justice Network, have led recent caravans to Sacramento to lobby their state representatives and organized an environmental bus tour that highlighted hot spots and problem issues throughout the region. To their credit, the tour was attended by the newly appointed Cal EPA director, his director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), and a lone local agriculture commissioner.

Garcia and Martinez’s organizations also advocate for larger pesticide-free buffer zones surrounding schools, an Amber Alert-like notification system that would notify residents of pesticide applications in their vicinity, and more sustainable agricultural practices. “We will never stop pushing for greater health protections for low-income people of color,” says Martinez, “but the fact of the matter remains that most of the jobs in this region are agricultural.” Martinez, Garcia, and others in the environmental justice movement recognize they must find a win-win roadmap for both the residents who depend on those jobs and the industry that provides them.

Their largest “victory” to date may provide just such a road map. In April, as a result of the overwhelming scientific evidence and intense lobbying from environmental justice groups, the California Environmental Protection Agency, flying in the face of the federal EPA’s example, directed the state’s DPR to begin the process of banning chlorpyrifos throughout the state. After initial resistance, the chemical industry gave up its fight over the ban, which is now expected to go into effect in early 2020. It is the first time in the history of California that a pesticide’s registration has been revoked. To sweeten the bitter pill that industry is being asked to swallow and to help farmers make the transition away from chlorpyrifos, the state is adding $5.7 million to fund research into safer and more sustainable alternatives.

As for Gabrial Duarte, he is currently awaiting trial at Laredo Pretrial Facility in Kern County on charges stemming from illegal gun possession. He has spent two and a half of the past five years in detention, first in juvenile detention, and currently while awaiting trial. After our first conversation at the prison in July, he asked to be seen by a mental health professional and has since been prescribed medication for his ADHD. He is also attending anger management classes.

“Before, I was a reckless renegade,” he told me over the phone. “Now, I think things through. I ask myself, ‘if I were to do this, how would you view it, how would they view it, and how would I view it’? It [the classes] has helped me to learn empathy.”

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Feature

Major League Baseball Wants to Crush 42 Minor League Teams — And Their Hometowns

Major League Baseball is threatening to destroy 42 minor league teams, and none of its reasons for doing so are any good.

Minor League Baseball, known as MiLB, is the level where nearly every future big-league player is developed, making it a vital piece of the baseball hierarchy in America. Minor league teams not only feed the MLB teams with which they’re affiliated, they also create thousands of jobs for smaller baseball-friendly communities across the nation, such as Lowell, Massachusetts, or more remote, otherwise baseball-less locales such as Burlington, Vermont, or Keizer, Oregon.

Minor league teams are what truly allows the sport to be considered the “national pastime,” as it manages to make the game national.

So far, we’ve heard MLB’s reasoning for shrinking the minors, we’ve heard some Minor League teams respond, and we’ve even witnessed members of Congress get in on the discussion with a disapproving letter and a task force. But we haven’t heard from the players themselves. What do the players, who lack a seat at the table in all of these discussions, think of the potential loss of more than 1,000 jobs, of severing the connection between MLB and 42 communities, and of their desire for a fair wage being repaid with the loss of a quarter of their jobs?

The initial reason for shrinking the minors, both in reporting by Baseball America and via MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, is “inadequate facilities.” Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league player with the Giants who is known for both his attempts to unionize MiLB players and his role as a lawyer representing players in a class-action lawsuit seeking unpaid wages, Senne v. MLB, believes this is an excuse “to try to push through a cost-saving measure.”

Broshuis is not alone in feeling this way. An active minor league player (who will remain anonymous to protect his identity) also believes the facilities could use a boost, but that shuttering teams isn’t the way to make it happen. “These MiLB teams are massively profitable in many cases for their owners, and they sink very little of that money back into facilities for players. There ought to be accountability for an organization to give back to the players that earn them their money,” he said.

In fact, players expecting to be paid for the value they create is the real reason behind MLB’s push; it’s using an effort by players to receive fair wages as an excuse to cut costs elsewhere and hurt smaller communities with minor league teams, all in the name of boosting profits a little bit.

In 2018, MLB successfully lobbied Congress to limit the pay of minor league players — who are paid by the major league teams themselves — to the federal minimum wage, and just 40 hours per week in-season. Even though players work more like 60-70 hours per week, they receive no overtime, and also are not paid for spring training, the postseason, or the offseason.

Understandably, there was backlash to MLB’s limiting minor-league salaries to as low as $290 for 40 hours of work, as the league’s lobbying to codify awful living and working conditions was brought to the attention of many fans who were otherwise unaware. So now, you have commissioner Manfred saying 42 teams need to be disaffiliated so that MLB teams can increase minor league pay for the remaining players, as if it’s an either/or proposition for an industry that rakes in $10 billion annually.

The reality is that paying every single minor league player an average of $50,000 per year would cost MLB teams $7.5 million. With $10 billion in revenue pouring in annually, that’s pocket change. It’s the salary of a single year of a good relief pitcher.

Kyle Johnson, another former minor leaguer, played with three of the teams on the disaffiliation list: the Orum Owlz, Burlington Bees, and Binghamton Rumble Ponies. He pointed out that the Toronto Blue Jays already increased pay for players at the lower levels, and haven’t gone broke in the process.

“The Blue Jays have shown that the model works: they’re not bankrupt, they’re not in trouble, and every single one of those guys in the Blue Jays’ organization is extremely thankful and not as stressed as I was every two weeks waiting for my paycheck when the $400 ran out,” he said. “The model can work, it can work at every single level MLB has right now.”

While the Jays’ decision to raise pay was an admirable one, by doubling player salaries they raised poverty-level wages to, well, slightly higher poverty-level wages. This is the kind of thing that happens when the players don’t have a seat at the table, and precisely why MLB is advocating for higher minor league pay now: The league can do it on its own terms, while squeezing the owners of Minor League Baseball teams for more money and concessions.

The players need a voice at the bargaining table, they need to be represented.
– Garrett Broshuis

“That’s the root of the problem,” says Broshuis. “They’re talking about cutting 1,000 minor-league jobs here, and you’re talking about doing it without giving the players a voice at all. The players need a voice at the bargaining table, they need to be represented, and it’s quite unfortunate that they don’t have a voice right now. There are other examples out there of minor league players with representation, like minor league hockey has a union, and in truth those players are treated much better than MiLB players.”

Broshuis isn’t exaggerating about how much better Pro Hockey Player Association players are treated than Minor League Baseball ones: the average salary of a PHPA member in the American Hockey League — the National Hockey League’s Triple-A equivalent — is around $118,000, while the minimum is $50,000. The per diem, too, is about three times what MiLB’s players receive to feed themselves. The NHL does not pull in the kind of revenue MLB does — it has never cracked $5 billion as a league — and yet it has managed to survive while treating players like human beings.

Players are also concerned about what cutting off local communities from affiliated ball will do to the growth of the game. Johnson pointed out that staying with host families who were “super engaged with the teams” was a highlight for him. Broshuis pointed out that teams like his first aren’t located anywhere near other pro ball. “If you deprive those fans of baseball, they just aren’t going to go to a game. That’s a lot of kids that aren’t exposed to baseball games, and if you want to grow the game, and want your fan base to be young, then you would think you would want to continue to provide opportunities for kids to go to games like they do at the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes,” he said.

A study suggests 4 million fans would be cut off from pro baseball if MLB’s plan goes through. The divide between baseball-haves and the have-nots would mirror a rural/urban divide in America, too.

“On the fan side, cutting down on the minor league levels hurts every party involved. It cuts down fan bases across the country, it concentrates baseball in major cities, which hurts the nationwide appeal of the game,” said the active anonymous player. “For many people, it means they won’t get to see an affiliated baseball game live. It makes no sense for MLB teams to cut down on farm systems, in both the short and long term.”

MLB doesn’t care about any of this, though. And that’s a shame for the players, the fans, and for the future of professional baseball in America, too.

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First Person

Bankruptcy Promised Me a Fresh Start. Predatory Lenders Are Trying to Ruin It.

When a U.S. bankruptcy court requested an itemized list of all the assets my wife and I owned, it broke us free from the facade of the faux middle-class lifestyle in which we were pretending to live. Looking through a tally of borrowed items and hand-me-downs with a net value of nothing replaced the shame of failure with the realization that we never made it in the first place.

We sought refuge in bankruptcy’s lore of the American Dream, believing in the rhetoric of fresh starts and new beginnings. However, for millions of families, debt forgiveness isn’t enough. Without a sustainable income or other necessities such as adequate health care, a bankruptcy discharge can perpetuate the cycle of debt, opening the door to unique yet systemic forms of predatory lending.

Bankruptcy can be a powerful tool for families seeking relief from dire financial straits. Sherry Hoban, executive director for the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project in Philadelphia, explained that discharging consumer debts works to the benefit of everyone. “The more people are able to take advantage of this benefit and able to discharge some of their back steps, be financially stable going forward, they will then be able to participate in the economy again to the benefit of the community,” she said.

Dr. Deborah Thorne, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Idaho, worked with Elizabeth Warren as part of the Consumer Bankruptcy Project and has studied bankruptcies for the past 25 years.

“I do think more people should file, and they should file sooner,” Thorne told me. “What happens is when they wait, they extract their wealth in ways that they shouldn’t. People are taking out from their 401(k)’s. They might be borrowing money from family members.”

Thorne, along with her colleague Dr. Katherine Porter (now Congresswoman Katherine Porter of California’s 45th District), sought to discover what happens to families like mine after they file. It’s a critical area of research that’s often ignored.

The results were startling.

According to their research, a full 25 percent of debtors continue to find themselves in a financially unstable situation post-bankruptcy. New bills plague these families even as old debts disappear. Contrary to the stigma, credit misuse does not fuel the cycle of debt in the post-discharge landscape. Mortgages, rent, utilities, and car payments keep most families underwater.

Thorne’s research found that almost one-third of filers consider their financial situations to be unchanged or worse off since their bankruptcy discharge. Declining household income triggered by illness, job loss, or advanced age could nullify the new beginnings associated with bankruptcy. And as Thorne told me, any combination of the three would most likely make the process a waste of time.

“It stops the debt collectors from harassing you,” Thorne said. “You can get a little bit of sleep for a while, and then it starts over again.”

Her research is echoed in the work of the late Dr. Song Han and Dr. Geng Li of the Federal Reserve Board. They found that not only do bankruptcy filers continue to suffer from financial distress in the short and long term, but these households tend to accumulate less wealth over time than comparable nonfilers.

That’s capitalism.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, Han and Li found that the lending industry is eager to extend credit to recent bankruptcy filers, often with predatory loans that continue the cycle of debt. On average, my wife and I receive 10 credit card offers per month, not including solicitations for auto loans, payday loans, and mortgage refinances.

They’re all low-limit, high-fee cards with interest rates that would be illegal in a more fair society. Even with the caveat of those terms and conditions, I found it curious that lenders would want our business, considering we recently chose to forego paying our debts.

“[Bankruptcy filers] depend on it to make it day-to-day,” Thorne said in reference to post-discharge credit. She stressed that people were using it for necessities and not frivolous luxury goods. “And so, if you know that those people are vulnerable, heck yeah, that’s who you’re going to offer credit to.”

Dr. Benjamin Keys of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Han and Li, reviewed more than 200,000 credit card solicitations and linked them to borrower credit histories. He and his colleagues found that dependent on the boom-bust cycle of the economy, lenders are using bankruptcy records, not only credit scores, to tailor offers to consumers.

In hindsight, the reasoning is logical. Following the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which added cumbersome paperwork and financial costs to bankruptcy proceedings, the time allowed between chapter 7 filings was extended from six to eight years, though after a few ups and downs, filings returned to their 1990 levels by 2016. Recent filers are more likely to receive credit because they’re barred from filing for bankruptcy again for almost a decade.

“There are elements in which getting some access to credit can help to rebuild the credit score,” said Keys cautioning me not to apply a sinister motive to the practice. “That said, these cards can have very high fees and are very high cost for what they are, which is usually a low credit limit, and in many cases, they’re secured,” which means they require a security deposit from the customer.

Keys had the opportunity to inspect these mailings through a dataset provided by the company Mintel, a process he compared to participating in the Neilsen Television rating program. Mail offers for recent bankruptcy filers, he found, were quite different than typical credit card solicitations sent to the general population.

“It acknowledges that you’ve gone through bankruptcy right away and says we still want to make you a credit offer even though you’ve gone through bankruptcy,” he told me. “We were sort of struck by how specific that was and how finely tailored it was to this population.”

A mailing I received while writing this story came from The Bankruptcy Information and Re-Establishment Center, a Better Business Bureau accredited company, promising “you’re not getting the credit you deserve” and offering to pre-qualify me for a loan right now. “Re-establishing credit after bankruptcy is the only way to save money on future financing,” read the letter before noting in bold print, “you must make a new purchase after a bankruptcy in order to re-establish credit.”

“That’s capitalism,” as Thorne explained to me quite matter-of-factly at one point in our conversation.

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