Women in Bankruptcy1
Prepared for the American Bankruptcy Institute
A silent feminization of bankruptcy may be underway as more women seek help from bankruptcy law to stabilize their failing economic circumstances. The most striking finding from an initial analysis of our newest empirical data is that the proportion of women filing alone in bankruptcy has increased dramatically since 1981. In 1981, single filing women were the smallest group, comprising 17% of all filers in our sample.2 By 1991, single filing women had overtaken single filing men and were 30% of all filers in the sample.3 By 1999, our initial analysis suggests that single filing women have increased even more and now constitute almost 40% of all filers.4 This makes single filing women the fastest growing group in bankruptcy by a large margin and means that women filing alone now outnumber either men filing alone or married couples.
Because overall bankruptcy filings have risen dramatically in the past two decades, the increase in the proportion of filings among women represents a particularly steep increase in their filing rates. If our multi-district samples of consumer debtors were representative of all debtors in bankruptcy, the increase in filings would look like this:
Projected National Filings for Single-Filing Men, Women and Joint Petitions
While bankruptcies for couples have grown by about 150% from 1981 to 1999, and bankruptcies by men filing alone have grown by about 375%, bankruptcy filings for women have increased by more than nine-fold. The "bankruptcy boom" has been widely reported. We now know, however, that it has been fueled in large part by divorced, widowed and single women streaming into the bankruptcy courts for help. These figures are displayed graphically in Figure 1.
National data on non-business bankruptcy filings published by Administrative Office of the United States Courts
In our continuing analysis, we will examine the reasons why so many women file for bankruptcy. One obvious place to look is the effects of divorce. Research has been accumulating for years showing that divorce is a financial catastrophe for many women. Women typically are left with children to support and bills to pay from the marriage. They are often granted inadequate support payments--and sixty percent are unable to collect what that they are awarded.5 Our study collected data about child support and alimony, family size, and age of the debtors and dependents, along with employment, income, and debt information. We also have asked the debtors about the reasons for their filings, which provides rich possibilities for better understanding the increase in filings.
Other researchers also have identified a noticeable increase in women heads of households filing for bankruptcy. Professors Marianne Culhane and Michaela White have conducted a study of 1,047 Chapter 7 cases filed in seven judicial districts in 1995. The protocols for that study are reported fully in Marianne B. Culhane & Michaela M. White, "Preliminary Results of the Bankruptcy Reaffirmation Project" (Oct. 1998)(unpublished manuscript on file with authors) and in Marianne B. Culhane & Michaela M. White, "Taking the New Consumer Bankruptcy Model for a Test Drive: Means-Testing Real Chapter 7 Debtors," 7 American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review 27 (1999). Professors Culhane and White report that in their 1995 sample 35.8% of the debtors were single-filing women, a figure entirely consistent with the rise we document from 1991 to 1999.
Professor Oliver Pollak suggests that the trend extends over a long period of time. He examined 5,441 consumer filings in a single district (Nebraska) for 1996-97, and he found that 32.4% were by women filing alone, again consistent with the rise during the 1990s. His protocols and data are reported in full in Oliver B. Pollak, "Gender and Bankruptcy: An Empirical Analysis of Evolving Trends in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Filings 1996-1997,"Commercial Law Journal 102, 3 (1998): 333-338. By comparison, he reports that the proportion of single-filing women was 14.6% in 1967, 11.1% in 1977, and 22.2% in 1987, demonstrating a thirty-year growth trend among women in bankruptcy filings.6 Together, the Pollack data and the Culhane and White data help fill in a picture of women increasingly turning to the bankruptcy courts for financial help.
Although not directly comparable, a Canadian study also shows a high proportion of women filing alone. Forty-one percent of a 1997 Canadian sample of bankrupt debtors were women. Saul Schwartz and Leigh Anderson, An Empirical Study of Canadians Seeking Personal Bankruptcy Protection 3 (Carleton University, 1998).
For additional commentary on women in bankruptcy, readers might consult Zipporah Batshaw Wiseman, "Women in Bankruptcy and Beyond," 65 Indiana Law Journal 107-121 (Winter 1989); Karen Gross, Failure and Forgiveness 67, 22, 245-246 (New Haven: Yale, 1997). For a longer view of the role of women in the bankruptcy system, Karen Gross, Marie Stefanini Newman, and Denise Campbell, "Ladies in Red: Learning from America's First Female Bankrupts," 40 American Journal of Legal History 1 (January 1996), have provided a fascinating account. For a more contemporary view about the roles of women in the bankruptcy system from bankruptcy to lawyer, see Commission on Gender, Commission on Race and Ethnicity, "Report of the Third Circuit Task Force on Equal Treatment in the Courts," 42 Villanova Law Review 1355 (1997); "Final Report and Recommendations of the Eighth Circuit Gender Fairness Task Force," 31 Creighton L. Rev. 9 (1997); "The Effects of Gender in the Federal Courts: The Final Report of the Ninth Circuit Gender Bias Task Force," 67 Southern California Law Review 745 (1994).
1 For a paper entitled "The Price of Equality? Women in Bankruptcy," we are examining empirical data about who has filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and their reasons for filing bankruptcy. ABI Executive Director Sam Gerdano asked us if we would write a very brief summary of our initial findings. We agreed, although we emphasize that this report is confined to only a small corner of the newest data, and that we are continuing with the full analysis. The comparative data from earlier years have already been published and are referred to in this summary. [RETURN TO TEXT]
2 The data for these reports come from three sources, a 1981 database, a 1991 database and a 1999 database. The 1981 data were collected from 1,547 bankruptcy cases filed in ten federal districts. The protocols for that study and the data are reported fully in full in Sullivan, Warren & Westbrook, As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America (Oxford University Press 1989), 149. As we report there, the proportion of single women filers in 1981 was 17%. [RETURN TO TEXT]
3 The 1991 data were collected from
2,650 cases filed in sixteen federal judicial districts. The protocols
for that study and the data are reported fully in full in Sullivan,
Warren & Westbrook, The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in
Debt (Yale University Press 1999). The proportion of single filing
women in that sample is 30%. (This book will be available in the fall
from Yale University Press, but the chapter on research protocols is
available on request from the authors.) Data from this study and
protocols on the study have already been published in Teresa Sullivan,
Elizabeth Warren and Jay Lawrence Westbrook, "From Golden Years to
Bankruptcy Years, Norton Bankruptcy Law Advisor 1 (July 1998) (a
report on the growth in bankruptcy filings among older Americans). [RETURN TO TEXT]
5 A report of the United States
Office of Child Support Enforcement, Twentieth Annual Report to
Congress for the Period Ending September 30, 1995, at 1 (1997)
explains that only 35% of 11.5 million custodial parents actually
receive any child support payments--even a single payment. Either
they did not receive a support order or they had an order but did not
receive any payments. According to the report, less than half of all
custodial parents of minor children (46%) had support orders and were
supposed to receive child support payments. Of those parents, only 51%
received full payment, 24% received partial payment, and 25% got
nothing. [RETURN TO TEXT]