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Has Growing Inequality Contributed to Rising Household Economic Distress?


  • Heather Boushey
  • Christian Weller


The personal bankruptcy rate increased more than fourfold in the last quarter century. Other measures of economic distress, particularly foreclosure and credit default rates, also increased sharply. A possible explanation for this is greater household indebtedness. Household debt relative to income, however, did not even double over the same period, suggesting that the aggregate increase in household economic distress was disproportionate to the rise in household debt. We consider if the simultaneous increase in income inequality has contributed to the rise in household economic distress, Specifically, we hypothesize that greater inequality led to a larger expansion of credit, especially in the form of credit card debt, among low and moderate income households than among higher income ones. This expansion of disproportionately more expensive credit may have contributed to the growth in household economic distress. Based on data from 1980 to 2004, we find robust evidence for a link between inequality and credit card debt and between credit card debt and economic distress.

Suggested Citation

  • Heather Boushey & Christian Weller, 2008. "Has Growing Inequality Contributed to Rising Household Economic Distress?," Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 20(1), pages 1-22.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:revpoe:v:20:y:2008:i:1:p:1-22
    DOI: 10.1080/09538250701661764

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    Cited by:

    1. Till Treeck, 2014. "Did Inequality Cause The U.S. Financial Crisis?," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 28(3), pages 421-448, July.
    2. Steven Pressman, 2009. "Public Policies and the Middle Class throughout the World in the Mid 2000s," LIS Working papers 517, LIS Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg.
    3. Bill Lucarelli, 2011. "The Economics of Financial Turbulence," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 14252.
    4. Boris Cournède & Oliver Denk & Peter Hoeller, 2015. "Finance and Inclusive Growth," OECD Economic Policy Papers 14, OECD Publishing.
    5. Barry Z. Cynamon & Steven M. Fazzari, 2016. "Inequality, the Great Recession and slow recovery," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 40(2), pages 373-399.
    6. Hafizah Hammad Ahmad Khan & Hussin Abdullah & Shamzaeffa Samsudin, 2016. "The Linkages between Household Consumption and Household Debt Composition in Malaysia," International Journal of Economics and Financial Issues, Econjournals, vol. 6(4), pages 1354-1359.
    7. Adkisson, Richard V. & Saucedo, Eduardo, 2012. "Emulation and state-by-state variations in bankruptcy rates," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 41(4), pages 400-407.

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