As we reported last week, consumer bankruptcy filings nationwide reached a five-year high in 2010. The same trend carried through in Central Florida, with 66,618 Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 filings last year in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Florida. At the same time, the average person has been working hard to pay down credit card debt, and that effort shows in a nationwide downward trend in outstanding consumer debt.

So why are people declaring bankruptcy at record rates when the average consumer has less credit card debt? A number of financial experts have suggested that the real problem is unemployment.

No Surprise: High Unemployment Pushes People With Unmanageable Debt Into Chapter 7

The unemployment rate in Florida is currently around 12 percent. The jobless rate in Central Florida hovers around 10 percent, although Duval County’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was recently calculated at 12.5 percent for November.

Worse, those rates are calculated considering only active job seekers. People who have decided to retire, gone back to school, gone on disability, or simply given up finding a job are not included in those unemployment numbers.

One Miami man interviewed for the Examiner.com Miami is probably quite typical. Lon Taylor had been in the building trades for 25 years and had been a construction foreman before he lost his job. Despite his experience, he hasn’t had any luck finding a new job. The construction industry took a real hit due to the real estate bust, and there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around to even the most experienced workers.

“I hate the fact that I can’t find a job,” Taylor told Examiner.com. And, like so many others who had been doing their best — often very well — to manage their finances, Taylor has had to declare bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy rate in Central Florida was eight percent higher in 2010 than it was in 2009, and 4.5 percent higher than the watershed number of filings in 2005, just before the new bankruptcy law was passed.

Douglas Neway, president of the Jacksonville Bankruptcy Bar Association and Chapter 13 Standing Trustee for the Middle District, says the record bankruptcy rates are a reflection of unemployment.

“People are clearly struggling to maintain their debt obligations,” he said.

Another factor, of course, is the foreclosure crisis.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a continued increase in filings into 2011 because many of the mortgage lenders that imposed a moratorium on foreclosures toward the end of 2010 are likely to engage in foreclosing on properties again in 2011,” said Neway.

The good news is that bankruptcy rates are believed to be a “lagging indicator” of how the overall economy is performing, which means that they are the result of past problems, not an indication of the future. That is to say, high rates of Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 consumer bankruptcy filings now don’t necessarily mean that the economy will continue to perform poorly.

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