LDS faith, bankruptcy: No link

Published June 29, 2007 12:00 am

New study shows Utah's high rate of filings has little to do with the religion's life tenets
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At first glance, it seems logical to assume Utah's high bankruptcy rate is connected to the large number of Mormons living in the state.

After all, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages members to pay 10 percent of their incomes in tithing, to marry young and to have a lot of kids - factors that suggest LDS families face extra challenges to make ends meet.

Yet a new study by two recent Harvard Law School graduates - both LDS Church members - indicates that theory may need to be abandoned.

Ezekial Johnson, who wrote the study "Are Mormons Bankrupting Utah? Evidence From the Bankruptcy Courts" with co-researcher James Wright, said the authors found that non-Mormons were slightly more likely than LDS Church members to go bankrupt.

"Frankly, we were stunned when we first ran the data and saw the results," Johnson said. "To be honest, those results went against all our initial thoughts."

The study was based on 281 surveys Johnson and Wright collected in Utah in August 2004, when the state led the nation in bankruptcies per household. Utahns filing for bankruptcy were asked to fill out voluntary questionnaires after their mandatory first meeting of creditors. The survey included questions about debtors' religious affiliations and charitable donations.

Wright and Johnson became interested in the topic studying under Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor and authority on consumer bankruptcies.

"We had seen accounts that suggested a tie between the LDS Church and the rate of bankruptcies in Utah and this gave us the opportunity to ask some questions," said Wright, now a Salt Lake City real estate attorney.

One question they wrestled with was how to determine if those who pay tithing to the LDS Church are filing bankruptcy in a greater percentages than those who don't.

A 2005 bankruptcy study by The Salt Lake Tribune found that about 13 percent of Utah bankruptcy filers reported tithing in the year prior to going broke, with 12 percent paying tithes to the LDS Church.

Wright and Johnson approached the numbers from a different angle. Their methodology concluded that if the overall percentage of Mormons in Utah who paid tithing exceeded 35.5 percent, then Mormon tithe payers are actually less likely to file for bankruptcy than non-tithe payers. When the data came in, it showed 36.2 percent of Mormons paid tithing of $1,000 or more a year.

Still, they conceded, determining the rate of bankruptcies filed by tithe payers is difficult since the LDS Church doesn't publish its data. Also, it is difficult to know what tithe payers would have contributed if they were not under economic distress, Wright said.

Another finding: While children typically increase the likelihood of families filing bankruptcy, in Utah that pressure was less severe. Johnson and Wright knew from Warren's studies that, nationally, households with children are 300 percent more likely to file for bankruptcy than households without children. But in Utah, that percentage dropped to 191 percent.

The Salt Lake Tribune's analysis found nearly two-thirds of bankruptcy filers in Utah had one or more dependent children, making them twice as likely to be supporting children under 18 as the average household nationally.

Jeff Thredgold, president of Salt Lake City-based Thredgold Economic Associations and a consultant to Zions Bank, said large families invariably will put Utah among the top 15 states in bankruptcy filings.

"When you have 50 percent more children per adult in a household there is going to be increased financial pressure. But the fact that there are more children per household [in Utah than nationally] is probably more of a cultural issue than a religious one," he said, contending other faiths in the state also have larger families, recognizing Utah is a good place to raise children.

Although Thredgold would have liked to see a larger survey sample, he said the study will be worthwhile if it helps counter some myths about why bankruptcies are higher in Utah.

Utah State University Professor Jean Lown, who has done extensive research on Utah bankruptcy rates, said the Harvard study's findings that slightly fewer Mormons file for bankruptcy in Utah than non-Mormons is in line with her own research.

"It is a fascinating study and a good start," she said. "And it does address some issues that need to be considered."

Johnson and Wright conceded their study doesn't answer the question of why Utah's bankruptcies-per-household rates is higher than the national average, but speculated that the reasons were the same as The Salt Lake Tribune's study.

It painted a picture of families living paycheck to paycheck when they were suddenly stymied financially by unexpected job loss, a medical crisis, business failure or divorce - forces or events that typically contribute to bankruptcy everywhere.

steve@sltrib.com