Millions of American families have lost everything in recent years, and new data shows that middle-class households are going bankrupt at a faster pace than households in other income groups. A scarcity of well-paying jobs, astronomical price increases, and the runaway increase of mortgage rates in an age of stagnant paychecks have all contributed to the financial struggles of middle-class Americans. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to the fact that even with two incomes, becoming and staying in the middle class has never been harder. The current economic downturn is threatening to make things even more complicated for middle-income earners. They are standing on very thin ice, and the cracks are starting to show. Many of them are already on the brink and are likely to the pushed over the edge by an unexpected job loss or emergency expense in the months ahead, experts say.
Middle-class Americans accounted for 66% of personal bankruptcies in the country in 2022. Today, many of the staples of middle-class life such as college education and homeownership carry with them more financial risk, requiring more borrowing and new riskier forms of borrowing, especially at a time of rampant interest rates. And now more than ever, consumer debt has become the go-to pressure valve for squeezed middle-class families. However, more consumer debt puts them in a precarious financial situation, economists say. “It is the people in the middle — not the richest or the poorest — who accumulate the most debt on their credit cards. It is these same people who seek relief in the bankruptcy courts,” highlights economist and management consultant, Amelia Tyagi.
A generation ago, a typical middle-class family with one income committed about 54% of their pay to the basics — housing, health insurance, transportation, and taxes. That is, the one-income family spent about half its income to cover all the bills — “the essential expenses that must be paid even if someone gets sick or loses a job,” Tyagi says. In 2023, these basic expenses, including child care so that both parents can work, consume 75% of the family’s combined income. With 75% of income allocated for fixed expenses, the finances of today’s middle-income households have no margin for error.
“When we think of bankruptcy, we often think of celebrities who have gone broke, companies that failed, and crooks who are trying to cheat the system. But as it turns out, bankruptcy is most common among middle-class Americans,” says MarketWatch financial analyst Jana Kasperkevic. During an interview, bankruptcy lawyer Craig D. Robins emphasizes that nowadays, those who are most likely to file for bankruptcy are middle-class families of the baby-boomer generation – “the typical Long Island family,” he said. “We previously considered middle-class families as a stereotypical group noted for their financial stability and for the vitality they provide to the American economic system. It is the middle-class family, however, that now has become the stereotypical bankruptcy filer,” Robins outlines.
Carrying high levels of debt during such uncertain times may push many of these households over the edge financially in the months ahead. As the recession unfolds, layoffs and the lack of job creation will continue to fuel the personal bankruptcy boom. That’s how you know when a country is broken. The foundation of our economy is desintegrating before our eyes. And many people will be shocked to find out that poverty may be just one headwind away.
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