In the wake of the recession, bankruptcies hit women, communities of color hard

It’s hard to feel lonely in Roxie King’s house. The walls are packed with row upon row of pictures of Roxie’s parents, two children, twenty grandchildren, and other loved ones celebrating various stages in life. On a recent visit, Roxie proudly showed Woodstock friend Bobbi Ball of Partners In Community Building, Inc. and me around her clean and cozy ranch-style home of 37 years near Midway Airport. Given her good cheer, it was hard to believe that, just last year, she was at risk of losing this home.

When Roxie was laid off from her job as an echocardiogram technician at a hospital, her finances came under significant strain. Although she had some money saved and found freelance technician work, her income was less than half what it used to be and she couldn’t afford health insurance. On top of that, she was the sole breadwinner helping to raise three grandchildren. The savings eventually disappeared and she fell behind on her mortgage and other debts.

“I was robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Roxie said. “Somebody’s going to come up short.”

In the face of mounting debts and unavoidable responsibilities, Roxie decided that the best option for her was to declare Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Watch Roxie describe how it affected her life:

Our latest research found that, every year in Cook County, thousands of women like Roxie are facing the same tough choices and making the difficult decision to declare bankruptcy, a decision that has the potential to dramatically change someone’s life. Bridging the Gap II: Examining Trends and Patterns of Personal Bankruptcy in Cook County’s Communities of Color found that women heads of household living in Cook County’s communities of color make up a larger share of bankruptcy filings than any other demographic group—and it’s a share much larger than their percentage of the population. In African-American neighborhoods, 5.1 out of every 100 women declared bankruptcy between 2006 and 2010, while 3.4 out of every 100 men in African-American communities and just 1.2 out of every 100 women in white communities declared bankruptcy over the same period.  In some towns in South Suburban Cook County, like Riverdale and Dolton, nearly 1 out of every 10 women over the age of 18 declared bankruptcy between 2006 and 2010.

We also found that, like Roxie, people in African-American communities tend to choose Chapter 13 bankruptcy over Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Chapter 13 bankruptcy often carries a bigger element of risk than Chapter 7 does. In successful Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a filer is able to discharge most unsecured debts after a relatively quick process. In contrast, Chapter 13 filers do not have to liquidate their assets but instead commit to a three- to five-year repayment plan for a portion of their debts. While Chapter 13 has some advantages—you can keep your home if you’re behind on your mortgage, for example, and you don’t have to pay legal fees up front—the process is much longer, the legal fees are much higher, and a large percentage of repayment plans fail, leaving filers without the benefit of eliminating his or her debt. Filers may be even worse off after a failed repayment plan—they end up still in debt and it’s unlikely they were able to save money or otherwise improve their financial situation during the course of repayment plan.

The rising number of personal bankruptcies are, at least in part, a product of the economic crisis. Bankruptcies in Cook County skyrocketed during the recession, growing by nearly 60 percent from 2008 to 2010; nationwide, filings grew by 43 percent over the same period. High unemployment and underemployment, rising medical costs, and high foreclosure rates are forces behind the rising bankruptcy numbers.

Communities with high concentrations of bankruptcies inevitably have a lot of economic baggage that presents obstacles to recovering from the crisis. If we want these communities to bounce back, we must target resources for low- or no-cost financial planning, debt management, credit building, and legal assistance to the neighborhoods and towns identified in Bridging the Gap II as having the most severe bankruptcy problems. People struggling with debt are also susceptible to scam artists peddling false—and expensive—promises to eliminate debt or predatory “emergency” loans; we must ensure that sufficient regulation is in place to stop these practices from draining even more wealth from the areas that can least afford it.