Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Feurer, Rosemary A.

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of History




Rising indebtedness, bankruptcies, and job losses were all part of the working-class experience with wage garnishment, the major debt collection system during the last century. Garnishment was a powerful legal institution used by creditors to access workers' wages before they received their paycheck, and it gave the creditor a great deal of power during the loan repayment period, because the borrower had few legal options after signing their wages away. When used, it drained workers' incomes and hurt their future job prospects. This dissertation focuses on wage garnishment as a system of indebtedness, and analyzes the way these predatory lines of credit disproportionately affected the African-American community in Chicago. My project examines the way that garnishment operated to harm the financial and social positions of workers in a consumption based economy, and the way that it became a focal point of struggles for justice in Chicago in the 1960s. Several cases of murders and suicides by garnished debtors drew public attention to garnishment in the mid-twentieth-century. Extreme cases highlight the complicated way that employers, who became collection agents, entered this subject. Accruing even one garnishment limited future job prospects because many firms refused to employ workers with garnishment cases. The dissertation analyzes the effects of this collection system on the working-class in Chicago from 1957-1970, a period of rising credit use among all income groups and no federal regulation of garnishment. The dissertation answers the following primary questions: Who were the garnished and what was their experience? Why did the issue rise as a public issue in the 1950s and 1960s? Who tried to remedy or abolish garnishment? What limited attempts at reform? This topic has received little attention from historians. At the time, however, it was such a large issue that it was part of the famous Kerner commission on urban uprisings. My sources included the recently available archival collections of Abner Mikva, and a wealth of other sources bringing new light to the subject. Using social history methodology, this dissertation examines how workers negotiated the debt system in the last century, and thus adds to our understanding about debt and debt collection for the working-class. It engages a variety of government and archival sources to explain the political, social, and labor dynamics of wage garnishment. The setting of Chicago, an industrial city and financial center, forces us to confront the ways that old systems of debt, tied to class and legal regimes, continued as aspects of debt regimes under modern capitalism.


Advisors: Rosemary A. Feurer.||Committee members: Stanley Arnold; Barbara Posadas.||Includes bibliographical references.


269 pages




Northern Illinois University

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