What if debt still equaled a prison sentence?
As gas and food prices spike in this unstable economy, credit card debt is also on the rise. Those who accumulate debt they cannot pay off face consequences such as harassing calls from debt collectors and even home foreclosure. Think that sounds bad? If you lived in the United States or United Kingdom in the 1700s and 1800s, you would have been thrown in prison for reneging on your payments.
A sentence to a debtors’ prison was once the punishment for unpaid taxes or debts, which were notoriously smelly, dirty and cramped. Charles Dickens’ father was sent to one, which is reflected in several of his novels. For history buffs, a debtors prison in Accomac, Va. is still standing and available for visits.
The practice of imprisoning someone who could not pay off his or her debt was eventually seen as ineffective and was abolished in the U.K. in 1869 (though people who could pay off their debt but chose not to could still be forced to serve six weeks). The United States ended imprisonment for most debts in 1833, though U.S. citizens can still serve time for debts of fraud, child support or alimony. Americans can also find themselves in striped jumpsuits for neglecting to appear at legal hearings regarding court debts.
Falling behind with your credit card bills, mortgage, payday loans or car payments will not land you in a jail cell, but imagine if every debtor in the United States had to serve time for debt. There simply wouldn’t be room for everyone. Our workforce would be vastly diminished. I have a feeling our debt-addicted society would halt to a standstill.
Interestingly, an article posted online by a man named Jes Beard argues that poor people in modern times would benefit by the return of debtors prisons. These are his reasons: It would increase workforce participation, increase personal responsibility, make it easier for the poor to climb the economic ladder through entrepreneurship, reintroduce the virtues that have proven the only reliable way of the poor to leave poverty and make credit more readily available.
Who is right? Would the reinstatement of debtors’ prison encourage financial responsibility? Would it be a total disaster?