Solving Mystery of High Filing Rate: No Gamble, Or is it?

3 October 2005
For years Nevada's personal bankruptcy rate has been among the highest in the nation, but experts have difficulty explaining why that is.

"There are a number of what I call armchair assessments, but there are no widely respected analyses that everyone agrees on," said UNLV bankruptcy law professor Robert Lawless, who is researching the topic.

A common armchair assessment is that Nevadans have ample access to gambling. But the correlation between casinos and bankruptcy filing rates is controversial, and experts believe Nevada's No. 4 ranking can't be attributed directly to it.

To be sure, there are Nevada gamblers in over their heads.

Of the people who pour into Credit Counseling Services in Las Vegas seeking financial counseling, about 10 percent acknowledge gambling addictions, said Credit Counseling Services Chief Executive Michele Johnson, who believes the actual number is higher.

"This town wasn't built on winners," she said.

But gaming industry leaders insist casinos are not to blame.

American Gaming Association President Frank Fahrenkopf has noted that the two states with the highest bankruptcy rates -- Tennessee and Utah -- do not have casinos. Utah has no gambling at all.

Research hasn't provided a conclusive answer.

A 1999 report by the Treasury Department concluded that there was a "weak relationship" between frequent gambling and the probability of declaring bankruptcy.

But in a report released earlier this year, two Creighton University professors found that counties that legalized casinos between 1990 and 2002 ultimately had higher bankruptcy rates than counties without casinos.

Another theory on Nevada's bankruptcy woes is that the shiny beacon of Las Vegas, which every week draws thousands of new arrivals with the promise of affordable living, is filling with debtors living on the edge. They may come with visions of new beginnings, but moving is expensive and any setback -- a layoff, a sick child, a transmission breakdown -- can plunge them into a financial abyss, experts say.

"People who move are more likely to have financial problems, and in this state most of its growth has been from movement in," Las Vegas Bankruptcy Judge Bruce Markell said.

Markell, a former UNLV bankruptcy law professor, has only unscientific theories as to why Nevada has a higher rate of filings.

Casino gambling probably contributes only marginally to the higher rate, he said. A large percentage of less-stable service industry jobs may be a factor, and a tourism slowdown after Sept. 11, 2001, also may have driven up the number in recent years, he said.

The law was changed to make bankruptcy harder to file because credit card companies said too many people used it to get out of paying their debts. But that isn't the case in the "vast majority" of Nevada cases, Markell said.

"Mostly," he said "it's just people who have bad luck."

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.