Growing Trend For Bankruptcy For Seniors

Growing Trend For Bankruptcy For Seniors

By Don McCanne, M.D., PNHP.org

The social safety net for older Americans built up during the last century is now showing alarming trends toward shifting greater financial risk to this population. In the past two and a half decades there has been a five-fold increase in the rate of bankruptcy filings for individuals over 65.

There are multiple factors including the loss of income, the deterioration in retirement plans, and the inability to accumulate wealth before retirement, but the inadequacy of health care coverage also has been a significant factor. The authors state, “respondents were asked to list the single most important thing that they or their family members were unable to afford in the year before their bankruptcies. Over half of older filers (52 percent) who responded indicated that the single most important thing they had to go forego was related to medical care—surgeries, doctor visits, prescriptions, dental care, and health/supplemental insurance.”

The authors conclude, “Absent significant policy changes that reassume the risks of aging and effectively insure the financial stability of older Americans, our data suggest that the trend of an aging bankruptcy population will continue… Now that we can see the magnitude of the coming storm of broke elderly, it is time to renew our commitment to supporting our citizens as they age,” and “At the core, the lessons of prior decades show that aid to older citizens must originate with our government.”

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

By Deborah Thorne, Pamela Foohey, Robert M. Lawless & Katherine Porter
SSRN, August 5, 2018

Abstract

The social safety net for older Americans has been shrinking for the past couple decades. The risks associated with aging, reduced income, and increased healthcare costs, have been off-loaded onto older individuals. At the same time, older Americans are increasingly likely to file consumer bankruptcy, and their representation among those in bankruptcy has never been higher. Using data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, we find more than a two-fold increase in the rate at which older Americans (age 65 and over) file for bankruptcy and an almost five-fold increase in the percentage of older persons in the U.S. bankruptcy system. The magnitude of growth in older Americans in bankruptcy is so large that the broader trend of an aging U.S. population can explain only a small portion of the effect. In our data, older Americans report they are struggling with increased financial risks, namely inadequate income and unmanageable costs of healthcare, as they try to deal with reductions to their social safety net. As a result of these increased financial burdens, the median senior bankruptcy filer enters bankruptcy with negative wealth of $17,390 as compared to more than $250,000 for their non-bankrupt peers. For an increasing number of older Americans, their golden years are fraught with economic risks, the result of which is often bankruptcy.

From the Introduction

The social safety net for older Americans has been shrinking for the past couple decades. The risks associated with aging, reduced income, and increased healthcare costs, have been off-loaded onto older individuals. At the same time, older Americans are increasingly likely to file consumer bankruptcy, and their representation among those in bankruptcy has never been higher. Using data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, we find more than a two-fold increase in the rate at which older Americans (age 65 and over) file for bankruptcy and an almost five-fold increase in the percentage of older persons in the U.S. bankruptcy system. The magnitude of growth in older Americans in bankruptcy is so large that the broader trend of an aging U.S. population can explain only a small portion of the effect. In our data, older Americans report they are struggling with increased financial risks, namely inadequate income and unmanageable costs of healthcare, as they try to deal with reductions to their social safety net. As a result of these increased financial burdens, the median senior bankruptcy filer enters bankruptcy with negative wealth of $17,390 as compared to more than $250,000 for their non-bankrupt peers. For an increasing number of older Americans, their golden years are fraught with economic risks, the result of which is often bankruptcy.

National concern for the well-being of older Americans soon declined, beginning in the early-1980s, especially as the cost of funding their social safety net strained state and federal budgets. This financial tension and emerging ideological shifts promoted an intergenerational war. Conservatives, free market advocates, and media promoted the image of older Americans as “a threat to economic viability,” as thieves of our children’s futures, and as “responsible for the nation’s economic problems.” In just a few decades, norms of privatized citizenship and individual responsibility upstaged the ideal of America’s social welfare system. Financial risks were shunted off onto individuals, regardless of age. Many older Americans suffered greatly because of this movement toward “private responsibility,” with their Social Security, retirement, and healthcare, among other protections, coming under attack.

Since the early-1990s, scholars on the Consumer Bankruptcy Project (CBP) have collected data on the age of bankruptcy filers. These data are used to determine the percent of older Americans within the U.S. population who file bankruptcy, and the percent of older filers within the bankrupt population. Comparing CBP data between 1991 and now shows significant increases in both categories. The changes are so great that the broader trend of an aging U.S. population can explain only a small proportion of what is happening in the bankruptcy courts. Older Americans’ reported reasons for filing strongly suggest that they are experiencing the fallout from our current individualized risk society and the corresponding shrinkage of their social safety net.

From the Results

Within the Bankrupt Population

One in seven bankruptcy filers is of retirement age, 65 years or over. This is nearly a five-fold increase over just two and a half decades. This is a notable demographic shift.

Within the oldest cohort, those age 75 and over, there has been a near ten-fold increase since 1991. In 1991, this group constituted only 0.3 percent of filers, as compared to 3.3 percent now.

The overall trend is clear. Bankruptcy filers in the youngest cohorts (18-24, 25-34, and 35-44) now comprise a much smaller segment of the bankrupt population than they did twenty-five years ago. During that same period, there has been a marked increase in the percent of filers among the older cohorts (55-64, 65-74, and 75 and above), those people who are approaching or are in their retirement years.

Older Americans’ Reasons for Bankruptcy—Evidence of a Risk Shift

Regardless of age, leading data suggest that income problems and medical costs top the list of events that push households into bankruptcy.

Data from the current CBP suggest that financial struggles, namely a decline in income, was a leading reason for older Americans’ bankruptcies—almost seven out of ten respondents (69.1 percent) reported that they “very much” or “somewhat” agreed that this was the reason for their bankruptcy.

Another respondent’s comment describes an additional financial risk that can be especially consequential for retirees—the popular defined-contribution plans, like 401(k)s, that individuals are left to manage on their own.

Just over seven out of ten respondents (71.6 percent) either “very much” or “somewhat” agreed that they filed because of the stress of dealing with debt collectors.

Medical expenses also were a catalyst for bankruptcy for more than six out of ten (62.2 percent) respondents.

Additionally, 40 percent of respondents reported that they “very much” or “somewhat” agree that missing work for medical reasons was a reason for their bankruptcies.

Finally, respondents were asked to list the single most important thing that they or their family members were unable to afford in the year before their bankruptcies. Over half of older filers (52 percent) who responded indicated that the single most important thing they had to go forego was related to medical care—surgeries, doctor visits, prescriptions, dental care, and health/supplemental insurance. These responses continue to suggest that their health care coverage is inadequate.

From the Discussion

The most effective solution to older Americans’ increasing financial plight is a social safety net that obviates the need to take out debts that result in financial crises. In prior decades, Americans collectively decided that we have a responsibility to our older citizens to absorb the financial risks they face. But it appears that we have since abandoned that commitment. We can do better. Historically, we have.

At the core, the lessons of prior decades show that aid to older citizens must originate with our government. Community and charitable organizations, while having the best of intentions, are inadequate. Comprehensive policies led by our government will ensure financial stability for all elderly citizens. We appear to be in the midst of an old-fashioned game of tug-of-war. On the one hand, many Americans believe that providing a strong social safety net for our older citizens, a net that reduces their individual financial risks, is part of our collective responsibility. On the other hand, there are those who insist on policies that continue to unravel that safety net, leaving older Americans to fend for themselves.

Conclusion

How we manage the time called retirement, the span between when we stop working and when we die, is a social issue affecting the lives of tens of millions. America has come almost full circle in its attitudes toward its older citizens—from sending them to the poorhouse when they became a financial burden, to ameliorating their economic risks with pensions, a responsive social security program, and healthcare, and now to transferring financial risks to them that can drive them to financial collapse.

Absent significant policy changes that reassume the risks of aging and effectively insure the financial stability of older Americans, our data suggest that the trend of an aging bankruptcy population will continue. In 2015, almost 15 percent of the U.S. population was 65 and over. By 2050, almost a quarter of Americans, 88 million, will be over 65 (U.S. Census 2016). If current bankruptcy trends among seniors continue, our bankruptcy courts will be flooded with financially broken retirees. For older Americans, bankruptcy is too little too late. By the time they file, their wealth has vanished, and they simply do not have the enough years to get back on their feet. Our data expose the severity of the continuing financial decline of older Americans. Now that we can see the magnitude of the coming storm of broke elderly, it is time to renew our commitment to supporting our citizens as they age.

https://papers.ssrn.com…

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