Why 20 Million Americans Should File for Bankruptcy

Why 20 Million Americans Should File for Bankruptcy

Why you should care

A whopping number of Americans would benefit from filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

A few years ago, Chris Saltzburg found himself at the intersection of an expensive divorce, the loss of his job and the rapidly declining health of his mother. The debts started piling up. American Express seized his bank account. After making a six-figure salary for most of his career as a model, Saltzburg was broke.

He began researching his options and found that filing for bankruptcy made the most sense. But the process seemed incredibly daunting, and he couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer. Saltzburg’s situation is all too familiar — it happens to people all over the country every day. While many fear the unknown or make false presumptions about filing for Chapter 7 …

More than 20 million Americans would benefit from declaring bankruptcy.

But in 2017, fewer than 500,000 actually did, according to a data analysis by Upsolve, a nonprofit software platform that helps people file for Chapter 7. Saltzburg came across Upsolve while looking for bankruptcy resources, and the company guided him through his filing, free of charge.

Rohan Pavuluri, the founder of Upsolve, was inspired to start the company two years ago after volunteering with Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab, which focuses on finding legal solutions for people who can’t afford lawyers. While developing a method for assisting in bankruptcy filings, Pavuluri quickly realized that tech could be the solution. He joined forces with bankruptcy attorney Jonathan Petts, who helped optimize Upsolve’s toolkit and resources, while the rest of his team coded the platform. Today, users who sign into the app are prompted to upload pay stubs and tax forms, which are then autofilled into their Chapter 7 filing. Other information is autofilled in by a credit check.

Pavuluri zeroed in on bankruptcy because he realized its potential was vastly underutilized, particularly for low-income Americans. Bankruptcy wipes their slate clean, improves their credit scores and can help them get a job. “It’s one of the most powerful poverty-fighting tools around, and we aim to make it accessible at scale,” Pavuluri says. Especially because the reasons people end up in debt resonate with most Americans. “The No. 1 reason [for filing bankruptcy] is medical debts,” he says. “Divorce and people who are victims of an abusive partner are also common.” By offering a free service, Pavuluri is helping people who may never have known that Chapter 7, a type of bankruptcy that liquidates a person’s existing assets to pay their debts, was an option. Currently, the organization is funded through philanthropy — the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is one of its donors — as well as through the government. It also asks Upsolve clients who’ve had successful outcomes to donate a small amount if they can.

Bankruptcy filings go up when people get their tax refunds.

Michelle White, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego

In 2005, Congress made changes to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in an attempt to make it more difficult for some consumers to file for Chapter 7. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) now requires anyone filing to meet certain criteria: Your income must fall below the median income for your state, and you must also pass a “means” test that calculates your debt to determine if you qualify. Before BAPCPA, anyone could file for bankruptcy, regardless of their income. “You could be wealthy and still file for bankruptcy — there was no income cap at all,” says Michelle White, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied bankruptcy since the 1990s. Some celebrities even filed for Chapter 7 before the code change went into effect. R&B singer Toni Braxton filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1998, alleging she was broke after being insufficiently paid by her recording label at the time, LaFace Records.

When White first began studying bankruptcy, she too was surprised at the number of people who not only qualified but would benefit from filing. It’s understandable, though, White says, that so many people don’t file. “The deterrent is usually the cost [of legal fees],” she says. “Bankruptcy filings go up when people get their tax refunds.” Surprisingly, the number of Americans who could benefit from filing for Chapter 7 is slightly higher than it was prior to BAPCPA. As of May, consumer debt levels were predicted to reach an all-time high by the end of 2018, according to consumer lending company, LendingTree. “Now, more than ever, people need the lifeline of bankruptcy to get back on their feet,” Pavuluri says.

Still, there are some financial situations that can’t be helped simply by filing for bankruptcy. Sometimes Pavuluri has to turn away people who don’t qualify for Chapter 7, usually because they’re homeowners or they earn above the median income, and direct them to a local attorney.

But the people who do file aren’t the only ones who could benefit. A crop of Americans with improved credit scores and the chance to increase their incomes could drive further economic growth. If Upsolve and other bankruptcy advocates can move the needle on the number of Americans who file for Chapter 7, the whole country would likely reap the benefits.

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