Thursday, March 10, 2005

Utah and Bankruptcy

Atrios posted the states with the highest number of households filing for bankruptcy. Utah's number one. Commenters at Eschaton and Matthew Yglesias try to put their heads around the idea. Among from the usual polygamy jokes, some plausible explanations surface.

1.--Mormons tend to marry young and produce big families early, before a steady income that can guarantee support for the family's needs is secured. It would be tempting to use credit to supplement the deficit.

2.--Mormons tend to value education, but the expectation that young men will serve two-year missions interrupts the undergraduate concentration and tends to make four-year degrees less worthwhile to the recipient. A typical pattern is for the wife to work (and tend children) while the husband gets a post-graduate degree. Sounds like a situation that demands credit.

3.--The injunction to pay tithing to the church is very strong. Once a month, services are given over to "fast Sundays," when everyone is supposed to donate the money spared by fasting to the church and when the service is taken over by personal testimony. This monthly routine reinforces the commandment to pay 1/10 of your income (and in the early church, it was initially 1/10 of your capital) to the church. What you get back from the church--and there is a return--is in the form of services. An adherence to the tithing commandment will limit your disposable income, even if you're making a decent salary.

4.--Salaries in Utah aren't very high. According to the governor's website, which tries to spin the statistics as well as it can, the average non-agricultural salary is $29.700 per year. The site gamely admits that this salary is 17% lower than the US average and does its best to mitigate damage from that admission.

5.--The population is young. According to 2000 census data, Utah has perhaps the most under-18-year-olds in the country, at a whopping 64.4 percent of total population. Actually the data from the census bureau seems to support more the idea that Mormons are having lots of children rather than that Mormons are young and irresponsable with credit (a point which would be better supported if the under thirty population were above the national average, which it isn't). So the census data actually supports point #1.

Those are the supportable, policy-like points. Muzzier cultural explanations for Mormon bankruptcy are next.

6.--The Mormon religion is an offshoot of Calvinism, so much of what Weber said about Protestantism and its relationship to money holds true for Mormons--and in spades, since it can be such a self-contained society. Having nice things is a sign of having money, which is a sign of having a successful life, which is a sign of being virtuous. The whole culture of polygamy and many children can to a certain degree be understood as part of a prestige society: within Mormon intellectual circles, the rationale is that since in the 19th century there were many unattached female converts, it made sense for the better-off men to take them in under the protection of marriage. Having multiple wives and children showed that one had the means to support them: prestige. While polygamy is out (and it really is out), children, big homes, and commodities are still definitely in. Mormons aren't your ascetic kind of Puritans. There's a glory in materialism--athletics, money, technology, even sex--that remains theologically interesting to me. Credit is a short-cut that makes sense here.

7.--Optimism. The religious culture in the LDS privileges happy endings. The narrative of conversion--I was so screwed up but then found God--in LDS is determined primarily in terms of lifestyle. Life will get better because I am doing honest work as an honest man (and yes, paid work is primarily being done by men). As I progress spiritually, as I become more Christ-like, life will continue to get better because I am becoming more worthy. This point is somewhat like the last one, but it's the quality of boundless hope that is important here. Spiritual potential is perhaps unlimited, but earnings potential is unfortunately restricted. A propensity towards optimism might lead one into damaging credit errors.

8.--While the Mormon parallel safety-net is good for some things--individuals will sacrifice a lot to home-care family-members and spouses, shut-ins will get visited by church members, elderly receive needed attention from their visiting teachers--it isn't an insurance policy. Tithing gets you services, but not medical care. Some Mormons might be lulled into a false sense of security, which would make medical emergencies expensive if not covered by a private insurance policy.

9.--One place where the Puritanical streak of Mormonism really shows up is in the general unwillingness to talk about money. It simply isn't done. Maybe a church member will go to the ward bishop and talk about his or her problems. The bishop will then figure out a specific way to help that member, usually involving some call to service on the part of the ward. But the appeal for help will then be couched in moral, not financial terms. The poor are in developing nations; the US members need some help, with casseroles or visits or services.

10.--A couple of commenters on Atrios's site suggested that family pressures might make Utahns and Mormons particularly susceptible to get-rich-quick schemes. From everything I've read about the preferred marks of con-men, Mormons fit the bill pretty nicely. Culture of the oppressed minority? check. Belief in rational quickfixes? check. Feeling of individual entitlement? check. Trust in fellows to speak truthfully? check. Sense that things will turn out for the best? check.

Thanks largely to my Depression-era atheistical father, I escaped much of this credit card cycle, but what comparatively mild interest-hikes and late-payment fees I've incurred make me more sympathetic to those who simply haven't been able to get out from under the debt. The sums have a nasty way of increasing, and what seems like a good deal turns catastrophic very quickly. I hope Utahns put pressure on Orrin Hatch about this bankrupcy bill. If he's going to advocate for penalizing debt, he really should start addressing more seriously the reasons so many of his constituents are defaulting.


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