Stigma’s Declining Half-Life?

More and more Americans are in mortgage default. In some cases the homeowner can no longer afford the mortgage payment. But according to reports in the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, a growing number of homeowners are choosing to walk away from their mortgage even when not forced to do so by their financial situation.


For some, no doubt, it’s straightforward economic calculus. One recent estimate suggests that for 10% of homeowners, the largest share since the Great Depression, mortgage debt now exceeds the value of the home. Over the past decade it became easier to get an initial mortgage loan with very little down payment. Many were able to later add a second mortgage (home equity loan); home equity loan debt tripled between 2000 and 2007. With rising home prices, this strategy works: the homeowner can keep up with the loan payments and even accumulate equity. But if home values fall, mortgage debt can easily exceed the market selling price of the home.

A mortgage is a non-recourse loan, which means a borrower in default does not owe the lender anything other than delivery of the loan’s collateral — in this case, the home itself. Defaulting on a mortgage loan in this circumstance therefore makes financial sense (at least in the short run, as default reduces the chances of getting a future loan). Some simply pack up and send the keys to the bank. For those who want to be certain the relevant paperwork is handled properly, a New York Times story tells of at least one newly-founded company, You Walk Away, that will take care of it for $995.

What is the role of norms here? Traditionally, losing one’s home has carried a stigma. Stigma can be a powerful deterrent to behavior that might otherwise bring financial and/or psychological benefit. Think of use of illicit drugs, divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, not attending church on Sunday, abortion, homosexuality.

Frequently, stigma has delayed widespread adoption or public acknowledgment of behaviors such as these for a considerable period of time. That doesn’t seem to be the case with mortgage default. I don’t know what share of people who could afford to keep paying are walking out on their mortgage loan, but the reports suggest it is nontrivial. If so, why hasn’t stigma acted as a more powerful brake?

One possibility is that the rate at which stigma’s influence declines has accelerated. Stigma associated with a behavior tends to recede when it is widely recognized that the behavior is fairly common. It may be that heightened access to information is dramatically shortening stigma’s influence. Mark Thoma suggests this as a possible factor in the rise of mortgage defaults.

My vague sense is that stigma’s influence declined more rapidly for out-of-wedlock childbearing than for divorce, and did so more rapidly still for homosexuality. As one indicator, the following chart shows the share of Americans saying homosexuality is “always wrong” since the early 1970s (the data are from the General Social Survey here). After holding constant during the 1970s and 1980s, the share fell by nearly 20 percentage points in the early 1990s (more discussion here).

Is the apparent acceleration in the pace of stigma’s decline real? Are there other examples?

2 thoughts on “Stigma’s Declining Half-Life?

  1. The “acceleration” is not positive. It appears the slope is getting less steep over time.

    Your last graph is actually evidence that norms have a dramatic change (e.g. whatever happened with opinions on homosexuals in the early 90’s) and then beliefs slowly asymptote to a new norm.

  2. Lane,

    Your premise that “social stigma” correlates (or has ever correlated) with curbing human behavior is charming, though inaccurate. Americans may be defaulting on their mortgages, however there is no compelling relationship between the “decline of stigma” for homosexuality, divorce, or other behaviors and defaulting on loans. What people say they think and what they actually do are rather different. Social science research has repeatedly found this to be the case.

    Shifting trends in what is considered “stigmatized” indicates changes in larger socio-political systems. For example, Stephanie Coontz’s research in her book “Marriage: A History” indicates that throughout the history of European cultures, the stigma of homosexuality has changed depending on the larger socio-political context. In the past 30 plus years in the U.S., many factors have changed for all members of society including increased economic opportunities for women, increased participation in parenting for men, legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors. (Incidentally, 1973 is the year that the Diagnostic Statistic Manual (version III) removed “homosexuality” as a mental illness.)

    For another look at how individual opinions on “stigmatized behaviors” does not influence behavior, consider the evidence on affairs in heterosexual marriages. Check out research conducted by the late Shirley Glass: Two out of five heterosexual married couples are having affairs while almost all self-report that they believe that extra-marital affairs are wrong. The region in the U.S. with the highest rate of extra-marital affairs? The Bible Belt. While the rates of men having affairs has remained the same over the past 50 years, there is an increase in women having affairs, not because of a decrease in social stigma, but because of an increase in women’s access to affair partners which is nearly equal to that of their male partners.

    When examining changes in stigmatized behaviors, self-report measures of individual’s opinions are rarely an indicator of actual behavior. More revealing questions on this issue may be:

    1) What changes occurred within the profession and practice of mortgage lending?
    2) Was there legislation that eased access to mortgages as well as easing consequences for defaulting?
    3) What other socio-economic trends occurred as a population within the last thirty to fifty years in the U.S. that might create a climate for mortgage defaulting?
    4) Are more Americans really defaulting on mortgages or are more Americans taking out mortgages and defaulting at the same rate as they always have?

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