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Stained Then Blamed for the Stain

It’s no secret that Americans think bankruptcy is for deadbeats, losers and folks with substandard moral character and work ethics.  The stain of a personal bankruptcy carries far wider and deeper than a negative credit rating.  For the rest of a bankrupt American’s life, the stain will be used as a shield against legal protection from crimes as horrific as rape or sexual assault. 

Want proof?  Just ask the former IMF chief’s lawyers.  Or just ask the NPR journalist or the Wall Street Journal reporter who participated in the interview I am about to cite to explain why they didn’t object to hearing that whether or not the young, female hotel worker involved in the rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is determined to be credible will rest in large part on her character.  Ask why we will check for personal bankruptcy as primary among the determining factors of her supposed credibility as a victim of rape.


First, from the transcript of NPR’s Morning Edition, June 3, 2011, host Mary Louise Kelly of NPR and guest Sean Gardiner of the Wall Street Journal , as they discuss how the case against Strauss-Kahn will be defended:

KELLY: Now, you have written that this is a classic he-said, she-said case.

Mr. GARDINER: Right.

KELLY: And that Mr. Strauss-Kahn's defense team is going to be looking to try and discredit the maid. What kind of things are they likely to be looking for?

Mr. GARDINER: Yeah, they've hired a private investigation firm, and they're going to look for anything and everything they can do to quote, unquote, "muddier her up." That's what the cops call it. You know, bankruptcy, has she not been a good tenant, what do her coworkers say about her, what do her work evaluations, you know, any dirt you can on her, and just, you know, use it in whatever way you can.


And no one objected.  Of course no one objected because we still believe bankruptcy means evil, wrong, dirty, sloppy, lazy, stupid, irresponsible, dishonest and so on.  Just finding out that someone has declared personal bankruptcy gives everyone from bosses to landlords to public servants reason enough to find bankrupt people flawed so fatally that even being protected from physical rape becomes problematic.  Individuals who go bankrupt are tainted.  We taint them.  And it comes so naturally as a part of our profit-loving, American DNA, that we don’t bat an eye when we hear the taint used against an injured person.

Of course, multiple bankruptcies by rich business owners are considered a prudent and sometimes necessary way to protect that wealthy and powerful interest from total collapse.  On the same day on the same NPR station, news stories about the auto industries emergence from the brink of financial ruin, including bankruptcy for some companies, was reported as if it were part of the successful strategy to rich profitability once again.  Hail, hail, hail. 

Isn’t it classic Americana to have a rich and powerful international banker be accused of actually raping a young, working class hotel housekeeper only to have her credibility slandered by looking at her financial standing (credit history, including any bankruptcy)?  Classic indeed.  And even more classic is that scarcely anyone notices that, and no one protests it.

Rich and powerful interests taint then rape those with little or no power and then excuse the rape by discrediting the tainted and raped.  We don’t live in an alternate universe; we wallow in it with regularity.  When we do not stand up to this sort of cultural-financial bias, we defend it.

So, what do we do with tainted patients in our broken healthcare system?  Oh, come on.  Don’t be naïve.  We label them tainted.  We make it hard for them and hard for their families to ever again dig out from under the mess.  The very people who make the taint possible – the profiteering insurance companies, providers and drug companies – don’t think for an instant about pushing people to the edge of the financial precipice and throwing them over to bankruptcy.  There are more than enough widgets to go around, and disposing of the flawed ones is efficient. 

The term “medical bankruptcy” has been used to somehow soften the language of the taint in recent years and by some politicians and even some who pretend to want to protect against it.  But it is a lie.  There is no way on a credit report or other financial history to label a personal bankruptcy as having been caused by medical crisis, and most personal bankruptcies that are the result of medical crisis might not necessarily look like medically caused bankruptcies to the uneducated or misguided reviewer. 

There is no way to only include medical debt in a personal bankruptcy.  Everything goes down with the ship.  Credit cards that carried everyday expenses when drug costs and co-pays and deductibles were paid will be listed as will all sorts of other personal debts that cover the struggle of a working class person to try to stay afloat rather than be tainted by bankruptcy.  I know because I lived it, and I know the taint.  It’s a tattoo that cannot be un-inked.

I know very few people who choose personal bankruptcy as an option.  Our up-bringing as responsible Americans and the taint we know will come makes sure of that.  Yet, no credit report, no lease application, no future employer, and no law enforcement person checking us out in the future will give one iota if the cause of our bankruptcy was prolonged medical crisis or not.  They won’t care if we had insurance and fought for years to stay out of bankruptcy.  They won’t care at all.  The taint of that bankruptcy will be all that matters.

During this recent recession, more and more Americans have faced bankruptcy and foreclosure.  In future years we’ll see the results of that mass tainting of personal history as we take those many millions of people out of the credit loop and broad economic activity of this nation.  And in the meantime, watch out if you’ve ever gone bankrupt.  Because if you get raped or otherwise victimized and need the protections of our criminal justice or legal system, you will be found unreliable and unworthy of the rights afforded the non-bankruptcy-tainted.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith is the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America.  PDA's mission is to strengthen the voice of progressive ideas inside and outside the Democratic Party by using "inside/outside" and "grassroots fusion" models of working both in the Democratic Party as well as working with other progressive organizations both inside and outside the Party.

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