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The Struggling Kind

by Aaron Carter

I have this friend who is the struggling kind. Barely making ends meet in a small Ohio town. The kind of man whose life is a daisy chain of minor calamity. Scrapes together his house payment, then gets sick and has to spend the money on a hospital bill. Signs up for overtime to get ahead, but the bosses pause production for a few days and he loses his base pay. One day we’re catching up and he tells me he has paid off his car. He bought it used on a ridiculous interest rate, but it runs reliably and now that’s one less payment he’s got to worry about. I breathe a little sigh of relief. Maybe this is the watershed and he can turn things around. Couple of months later, he’s complaining about his auto loan. “You get a new car?” I ask, the judgment in my voice clear. “I did,” he says. I think—but do not say—that this is exactly why he’s always lurching from one near disaster to another. No foresight. No planning. Instant gratification. “Why would you do that?” a hectoring tone edging in “You had a car free and clear!” “I gave that one to this young couple up the road,” he said. “They needed it more than I did.” In fiscal year 2013, more than one million people filed for bankruptcy, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. According to a study by NerdWallet Health, the number one cause of bankruptcy filings in 2013 was unpaid medical bills. “A lot of Americans probably think about bankruptcy as coming from unpaid credit-card debt or mortgages,” NerdWallet Health Vice President Christina LaMontagne said. “But the root cause of all those troubles may well be medical bills.” The prevalence of medical cost related bankruptcies may signal a new evolution in how Americans view bankruptcy. In a 1999 article published by the Milliken Institute—an “independent think tank”—author Joseph S. Pomykala paints the history of bankruptcy in America as a conflict between debtors rights and creditors rights: the pendulum swinging in response to the politics of each era. According to Pomykala, the framers viewed bankruptcy as a form of fraud. During the financial Panic of 1837, debt relief became a part of the Whig Party’s platform. As a result, the Bankruptcy Act of 1841 “widened eligibility to all debtors, where before only merchants and traders had been eligible. It also allowed debtors to voluntarily petition themselves into bankruptcy, instead of giving the option only to creditors.” Pomykala goes on to paint a history of bankruptcy in which protection tilts towards creditors in times of prosperity, and towards debtors in times of financial crisis. It is clear that the author is mustering an argument in favor of making it more difficult to declare bankruptcy—perhaps anticipating the 2005 bankruptcy overhaul that made it more difficult for consumers to clear their debts through Chapter 7 bankruptcy. But whether or not you agree with Pomykala’s arguments on the particular reform, the notion that bankruptcy law is tied to the spirit of the times is intriguing. It suggests to me that the ways we think about debt and responsibility are tied to our perception of prosperity and to the kind of people we wish to be. The character of Mom in The Way West believes in a vision of herself—and of her country—that is built on tall tales of pioneers who survived in the face of unimaginable hardship. But the moment that most speaks to me in the play is a little quieter than the rugged western rhetoric. Mom has helped her best friend Tress start a business. A business, you will learn in the course of the play, which most people would view as risky. As the full extent of Mom’s liability becomes clear, Mom declares “Good for me. It’s good to be generous. It’s a good way to be.” Part of what playwright Mona Mansour explores in The Way West is the how the American spirit of optimism, hard work and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds is both a blessing and a curse. At its best, it makes us capable of extraordinary things. And at its worst, it blinds us to harsh realities, rendering us unable to make difficult decisions or endure short term sacrifice for long term gain. But there is something just as American going on. Mom is in financial trouble because she wants to believe that she is a good person. A generous person. And, just like my friend back in Ohio, that is an idea of self so strong that Mom is willing to pay for it. In conversations during rehearsal, Mona has said “this isn’t a play about bankruptcy or foreclosure.” And I see what she means—The Way West doesn’t delve into the specifics of either process. Instead, Mona has identified a fascinating nexus where debt, personal responsibility, blame, national identity and individual character all slam together. For me, what drives this collision is our belief in the old adage that “Good things happen to good people.” When we attempt to assign blame in bankruptcy—blame the banks, blame the greedy consumer, blame inadequate health care—we are implicitly trying to identify the good guys. The good guys have suffered at the hands of the bad guys. As the swinging pendulum of bankruptcy history indicates, sometimes the good guys are the debtors that unscrupulous creditors have taken advantage of. And at other times, the good guys are the creditors who have created our prosperity. But finding the good guys and bad guys isn’t always easy. My friend in Ohio did a good thing that he couldn’t afford as did Mom in The Way West. Rather than inviting us to assign blame, I think the play asks us to see ourselves in these struggling characters. After all, if I asked you: would you be willing to go into debt to be a good person, I bet you’d say yes.