Emory Bankruptcy Developments Journal


Laws that award governmental benefits reflect an archetype of the type of person deemed worthy of governmental assistance and generally favor and reward people who have specific personal attributes or who engage in activities deemed socially desirable. Just as the Bankruptcy Code favors the “Ideal Debtor,” state and federal laws favor and subsidize Americans who live in a “traditional household.” Historically, this household consisted of husbands who earned income in the paid labor market and wives who stayed home to provide unpaid care for their husbands and minor children. Households that deviated from that norm rarely received the full range of benefits and often were excluded from receiving the financial subsidies traditional households receive. Changes in social mores, the legalization of same-sex marriages, bans on gender discrimination in employment markets, and widening economic inequality have made it more likely that households will consist of a multi-generational family, single parents, unmarried partners, childless married couples, and married parents who both earn income in the paid labor market.

Despite a shrinking number of traditional households, U.S. laws continue to subsidize the narrow profile of families who are most likely to live in a traditional household: white, rich, college graduates. Even if public policy historically justified providing subsidies for traditional households, ongoing subsidies for personal choices (to marry, have children and live in an independent household) can no longer be justified and, in addition, exacerbate existing income and wealth disparities.