Race and Bankruptcy: Explaining Racial Disparities in Consumer Bankruptcy

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African American bankruptcy filers select Chapter 13 far more often than other debtors, who opt instead for Chapter 7, which has higher success rates and lower attorneys’ fees. Prior scholarship blames racial discrimination by attorneys. We propose an alternative explanation: Chapter 13 offers benefits, including retention of cars and driver’s licenses, that are more valuable to African American debtors because of relatively long commutes. We study a 2011 policy change in Chicago, which seized cars and suspended licenses of consumers with large traffic-related debts. The policy produced a large increase in Chapter 13 filings, especially by African Americans. Two mechanisms explain the disparate racial impact: African Americans were more likely to have traffic debts and incurred greater costs from car seizures and license suspension due to relatively long commutes. When we match African Americans to other debtors with similar commutes, we find no racial difference in Chapter 13 filing propensities.

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