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Debt Stigma and Social Class

Michael Sousa

For as long as creditors have been extending credit to consumer debtors, Western society has stigmatized those individuals who failed to repay their financial obligations or who found themselves swamped by unmanageable debt. Over the past three decades, scholars have studied whether the stigma surrounding indebtedness and bankruptcy has declined or increased in American society, mainly due to the sharp spike in consumer bankruptcy filings during the 1990s. These studies have resulted in a general debate over whether debt stigma still exists in society. Absent from the scholarly literature to date is an exploration of whether debtors from different social classes have varied conceptions of what it means to be financially indebted or to file for bankruptcy protection. Consequently, this Article is the first attempt to study empirically whether debt stigma varies by socioeconomic class. Using quantitative data from the General Social Survey, the findings of this study suggest a systematic pattern between debt stigma and social class. Specifically, the higher an individual’s social position based upon factors such as income, education, occupational prestige, and self-identified social class, the greater the likelihood of agreeing with the idea that an individual has a right to commit suicide as a result of serious financial problems. This measure reflects whether one would or should feel shame, stigma, or embarrassment because of troubling financial debt. This quantitative finding is then situated within the social psychology literature, opining that finding oneself in severe financial straits has a direct bearing on a person’s social identity and self-esteem—matters inherently tied to social class.