I. Bankruptcy and Stigma This part analyzes whether or not there is a relationship between the mounting cases of personal bankruptcy today and the decreasing capacity of Americans to feel shame. In the past, there was much social stigma attached to declaring one’s insolvency…
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The premise of this is a statement given by Congressman Hutchinson, stating that “Having lost its social stigma, bankruptcy ‘convenience’ filings have become a tool to avoid financial obligations rather than a measure of last resort.” (quoted in Thorne and Anderson, 2006, 147). This was also supported by Efrat (2005: 481), who attributed the lessening of stigma to the fact that “American society may have developed a more positive attitude towards the individual that was manifested by less anger and more sympathy with the plight of the individual.” Thus, if the theory is to be followed, there was no more shame to be had because of the acceptance of those who defaulted from debts. The findings of Thorne and Anderson, however, appear to suggest otherwise. In fact, instead of viewing personal bankruptcy as merely a product of rational economic choice and a strategy to stop payment of mounting debt, those who file for bankruptcy find themselves confronting stigmatization and discrimination. Proof of this is their desire to conceal their bankruptcy from family members and associates whom they feel would be critical of what they perceive to be their fiscal mismanagement. To quote: Virtually every debtor whose parents were still living tried to withhold knowledge of the bankruptcy from them. Older debtors whose parents had passed away commented that "if they knew, they'd spin in their graves." One woman, whose father was visiting when the researcher arrived for the interview, nearly pushed the interviewer off the front steps out of fear (as she explained later) that if her father saw the researcher, he would ask disconcerting questions and potentially learn of the bankruptcy. If one looks at stigma as the social devaluation or deliberate alienation of an individual who deviates from a behavioural norm, such behavioural norm being “a shared belief of a particular social unit that individuals should act in a certain way under certain circumstances” (Stafford and Scott (1986: 81), then it is fairly obvious that when something becomes common, or when there are enough individuals who file for bankruptcy, it ceases to be a reason for stigma. An analogy could be premarital sex. In the past, there were not a lot of people who engaged in premarital sex and hence it was a stigma. But now, because it had become fairly common, there was no reason to feel stigmatised or ashamed. Fay, Hurst and White (2002: 708) also suggested that households file for bankruptcy when it becomes economically beneficial for them to do so. This paper argues however, that stigmatisation still affects those who file for bankruptcy. The empirical data accumulated by Thorne and Anderson prove this, so do Sutton and Callahan who said that even firms experience stigmatisation. “The bankrupt firms we studied were often shunned by members of their organizational audiences. The leaders we interviewed were hurt and embarrassed.(1987: 406)”. The reason is simple: no matter how common poverty is, it still causes stigmatisation. Bankruptcy is an indication of poverty. It is an indication of inability to pay off one’s debts. Even if there are a lot of people doing it, it is still is a cause for shame when one admits in official documents that he or she is asking to be legally discharged from debts contracted. Since childhood, people have been programmed to aspire towards prosperity and a certain way of life. Bankruptcy is a signal that that aspiration has not been met and that,
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