The Fragile Middle Class

Americans in Debt

Teresa A. Sullivan, Elizabeth Warren, and Jay Lawrence Westbrook

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Since 1997, the number of American families filing for federal bankruptcy annually has exceeded one million. By most measures, those who file are members of the middle class—a group that has long provided stability and vitality for the American economic system. This raises the troubling question: why, during the most remarkable period of prosperity in our history, are unprecedented numbers of Americans encountering such serious financial trouble?

The authors of this important book analyze court records and demographic data on thousands of bankruptcy cases, as well as debtors’ own poignant accounts of the reasons for their bankruptcies. For many middle-class Americans, the findings show, financial stability is fragile—almost any setback can be disastrous. The erosion of job stability, divorce and family instability, the visible and invisible costs of medical care, the burden of home ownership, and the staggering weight of consumer debt financed with plastic combine to threaten the financial security of growing numbers of middle-class families. The authors view the bankruptcy process in the light of changing cultural and economic factors and consider what this may signify for the future of a large, secure, and dynamic middle class.

Teresa A. Sullivan is Vice President and Graduate Dean and professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Elizabeth Warren is Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Jay Lawrence Westbrook is Benno C. Schmidt Chair of Business Law at the University of Texas School of Law.

"The authors of this well designed and carefully executed study remind us that there are winners and losers in the American free enterprise system. Many of the American middle class are losers because of loss of job, health, divorce, and the overarching temptation of easy credit. The banks make money from those who pay their bills and can absorb the losses from those who cannot. Bankruptcy is part of the American ’safety net’ which is great for everyone except those who must suffer its humiliation. Perhaps the temptations of easy credit are a problem to which moral and religious leaders ought to attend."—Andrew Greeley, University of Chicago

"This pathbreaking book by leading scholars of bankruptcy demonstrates the seamy side of the widely acclaimed middle class prosperity. For many Americans a fragile prosperity is cobbled together with dual jobs, multiple credit cards, and excessive borrowing. These scholars show that, once overextended, a lost job or high medical bills send many a middle class family into the growing abyss of bankruptcy and impoverishment."—Joe Feagin, Graduate Research Professor, University of Florida

The Fragile Middle Class answers the perplexing question of why we have experienced dramatic increases in bankruptcy filing in the midst of unprecedented prosperity. With poignant real-life stories as well as hard data, the authors demonstrate how bankruptcy is, in large part, a middle class phenomenon. This is an important book for anyone interested in economic or social policy.”—Judge Joyce Bihary, United States Bankruptcy Court, Atlanta

“The authors paint a remarkable portrait of Americans in debt and force us to discard our stereotypes of debtors. They further our understanding of both individuals in economic distress and the economic system in which we all struggle to manage.”—Karen Gross, New York Law School

"American politics too often is based on atrocity stories and colorful but atypical anecdotes. The Fragile Middle Class brings facts and common sense to debates over bankruptcy reform. Special interests won’t be pleased, but the rest of us should applaud Sullivan, Warren and Westbrook."—Stewart Macaulay, Malcolm Pitman Sharp Hilldale Professor and Theodore W. Brazeau Bascom Professor of Law, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“The basic message of The Fragile Middle Class rings true and is clear. . . . If we are part of that middle class, [this book] tells us that we are at risk. We are one downsizing, one major medical bill, or one divorce away from financial chaos.”—Bruce A. Markell, American Bankruptcy Law Journal

“A well-written and well-researched work that makes the legal and economic intricacies and the social implications of a complicated and crucial subject accessible to any interested readers.”—Wendel W. Meyer, Anglican Theological Review

“This thought-provoking and timely book is recommended for public, academic, and professional collections.”—Choice

“This book greatly increases our understanding of bankruptcy, and draws a connection between bankruptcy and risk that encourages a rethinking of social protection. It is a fine piece of work.”—Bruce G. Carruthers, Contemporary Sociology

“A sober and powerful work of analysis, done objectively and competently with a high level of statistical integrity. Yale University Press considers its message important; thoughtful readers will agree.”—Robert Nash, Dallas Morning News

“Following up the authors’ 1989 As we Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America . . . this book considers the middle class in terms of bankruptcy. The authors seek to discover why so many families are in economic trouble. . . . Clear in purpose, this important work is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.”—Library Journal

“This book is a sober and powerful work of analysis, done objectively and competently with a high level of statistical integrity.”—Robert Nash, Norman, Oklahoma Transcript

“[An] excellent study of the apparent paradox of surging bankruptcy filings during a period of prosperity. . . . A powerful and challenging interpretation of bankruptcy as a simmering, pervasive social problem governed by what is in effect a poorly designed—and widely misunderstood—federal social policy.”—Daniel Kryder, Political Science Quarterly

“[A] fascinating, alarming study. . . . [This] chilling diagnosis of middle-class affliction demonstrates that we all may be only a job loss, medical problem or credit card indulgence away from the downward spiral leading to bankruptcy.”—Publishers Weekly

“This book is a sober and powerful work of analysis, done objectively and competently with a high level of statistical integrity. Yale University Press considers its message important; thoughtful readers will agree.”—Robert Nash, Santa Ana Orange County Register

“Why are so many more Americans falling into financial distress? To answer that question, the authors of The Fragile Middle Class . . . queried 2,400 of the Americans who filed for bankruptcy in 1991. . . . A weighty and powerful brief.”—David Frum, Wall Street Journal

The Fragile Middle Class, a well-written work of social science that is about as gripping as the genre gets, forces us to reevaluate notions about consumerism.”—American Prospect
ISBN: 9780300091717
Publication Date: August 11, 2001
400 pages, 6.125 x 9.25
20 b/w illus.
The Fragile Middle Class

Americans in Debt

Teresa A.

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