Graying of U.S. Bankruptcy: Fallout from Life in a Risk Society

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Abstract

As neoliberal ideology and policies gained a foothold in the early 1980s, the social safety net for older Americans contracted. Responsibility for the risks associated with aging, namely retirement income and healthcare costs, was increasingly transferred from the state to the individual. Using data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, we report that since 1991, there has been more than a twofold increase in the rate at which older Americans (age 65 and over) file for consumer bankruptcy and an almost fivefold increase in the percentage of older persons in the U.S. bankruptcy system. This magnitude of growth is so large that the broader trend of an aging U.S. population can explain only a small portion of the effect. Respondents report that inadequate income and unmanageable healthcare costs are the chief reasons for their bankruptcies. Our findings suggest that neoliberal policies that offload healthcare costs and retirement savings onto older Americans may facilitate their bankruptcy filings.

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Thorne, D., Foohey, P., Lawless, R. M., & Porter, K. (2020). Graying of U.S. Bankruptcy: Fallout from Life in a Risk Society. Sociological Inquiry, 90(4), 681–704. https://doi.org/10.1111/soin.12323

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