By Christine Dugas,
Staci Schubert’s career has taken her from New York to California, from graphic designer to website designer to sales executive. Most recently, she launched a business as a designer of handbags and accessories.
At 40 and with such accomplishments, Schubert is Middle Class America. She and her counterparts have long been the nation’s backbone, because their steady jobs and purchasing power have helped drive our economy.
But Middle Class America has two faces, a new study shows. Schubert is that other Middle Class America, too.
After earning $275,000 annually, Schubert used most of her savings to start her business in 2003. The earliest days of the recession in 2007 slowed sales, and she fell behind on business and personal bills. Credit card debt reached $65,000.
She tried to find a full-time job without much luck, because the job market was saturated. Temporary freelance design work couldn’t cover her bills.
So in January 2008, she filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, becoming one of nearly 1.1 million consumer filers that year.
A new study by Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law School Leo Gottlieb professor of law, and Deborah Thorne, Ohio University associate professor of sociology, finds that personal bankruptcy has become a largely middle-class phenomenon led by filers who are college-educated and owners of homes. According to the study, “The Vulnerable Middle Class: Bankruptcy and Class Status,” the shift occurred even before the Great Recession.
More than 100,000 middle-class families filed for personal bankruptcy every month in 2007, says the report, which was provided to USA TODAY but will be released in a book next year. Those who filed in 2007 were in worse financial shape than those who had filed in 2001.
“The bankruptcy filings are a warning about the risks now facing middle-class Americans,” says Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). No longer can they count on a college education, a good job and homeownership to protect them from financial collapse.
“It’s horrifying for people who are not used to anything but an upward trajectory,” says Bob Anderson, a bankruptcy lawyer in Wilmington, N.C. “They are used to calling the shots.”
“I’m a highly educated, middle-class woman,” says Schubert, who is the single parent of a 2-year-old son, Lincoln. “Until now, I have never in my life been unemployed.”
More filings ahead
In 2005, the bankruptcy law was changed to make it harder to file bankruptcy. After it took effect, filings dramatically dropped. But this year, filings are climbing and are expected to total 1.5 million, the level they were at before the tighter law took effect.
Warren and Thorne say their data show that the change in the law was not a scalpel that cut out only those deliberately not paying their bills. These days, it’s ordinary middle-class Americans, not a marginalized underclass or high-stakes gamblers, who are most apt to experience financial failure.
Poor savings habits, health problems and excess spending have traditionally been causes of bankruptcy. But the study finds that college education and homeownership, the traditional strategies for wealth building, may not be enough to guarantee financial security.
“As these time-honored wealth-building strategies become higher-risk undertakings, the middle class may face even greater economic instability in coming years, suggesting that in the modern economy, the path to prosperity may be far more perilous than anyone imagined,” the authors conclude.
The proportion of bankruptcy filers who have been to college, whether they dropped out or graduated, increased from 46.5% in 1991 to 58.9% in 2007, the study finds.
“The data was taken from the boom years,” Warren says, noting that it takes a long time to analyze and produce it. “I’m almost afraid to look at the data now.”
Instead of graduating from college with upward mobility, many Americans are overwhelmed with college debt and few job opportunities, according to the study.
Schubert, who didn’t have college loans, thought she had it figured out.
“I graduated from a top art design school in the country,” she says of the Rhode Island School of Design. “Opportunities always came.”
After filing for bankruptcy in 2008, Schubert hasn’t found a full-time job but has been doing freelance design work. She says she has designed a new handbag line and is looking for investors to help recharge her business.
Home, sweet …?
Home ownership, like higher education, guarantees little, the study finds.
“For decades the middle class counted on homes as an economic lifeboat,” Warren says. With a fixed-rate mortgage and a home that appreciated in value, families had a financial nest egg they could rely upon.
Now, homes are sinking families instead of stabilizing them, as home values plummet. When Diane and Nicholas Spano of Long Island, N.Y., ran into financial problems, they thought that the home they have owned for 29 years could save them.
Diane had a kidney transplant, and Nicholas temporarily couldn’t work at the post office because of a back problem. Diane went back to work at a drug and alcohol center, but it closed.
They applied for a home-equity loan, without realizing that there was no way they could afford the payments. House payments totaled $3,200 a month, and Diane had $200 a month in medical bills.
This summer the couple, who are both 66, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
“I feel bad,” she says. “But if we had not filed for bankruptcy, I don’t know where we’d be.”
The home went into foreclosure, but the Spanos are trying to work out a loan modification. Diane is working part time at CVS; Nicholas has retired.
“Carrying debt is like carrying a backpack full of bricks,” says James Doan, a bankruptcy attorney in San Clemente, Calif. “It weighs people down. They feel like failures. The are embarrassed and ashamed.”
The job-loss domino effect is catastrophic. In cities such as Boise, for example, the economy is dependent on the high-tech industry. Many of those workers have seen salaries shrink and bonuses disappear, while others were laid off.
“They were making good money, and now, many are working at Lowe’s and Home Depot,” says C. Grant King, a Boise bankruptcy lawyer. “Now, we’re seeing a wave of people who never thought they’d be coming in here, filing for bankruptcy.”
The housing market collapse, which devastated the construction industry, also brought in waves of filers. Builders, roofers, concrete workers, real estate agents and mortgage lenders are among bankruptcy filers now, King says.
Spend, spend, spend
During the boom years, many middle-class Americans lived beyond their means. “People have been negligent with their finances,” says Doan. “They’ve taken a lot of money out of their homes like it’s an ATM.”
Middle-class families were encouraged to spend. But that often turned into a disaster when their bills increased and wages dwindled.
“My wife and I were great at lubricating the economy,” says Rock Macke, who lives with his wife and two children in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. “We loved to spend money, as is the middle-class thing to do.”
Macke says a $400,000 tax bill related to stock from his now-defunct employer wiped out the couple’s savings. He was able to keep working, but he says the couple lived paycheck-to-paycheck as debt mounted to about $225,000. They filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in March.
Since then, they’ve gotten rid of their expensive cars and downgraded. Macke takes care of the yard instead of paying for a gardener.
“I got wrapped up in materialism. But in a painful way, this reminded me of important things, like a healthy family, that you lose perspective on when you’re trying to chase the American dream,” he says.