NEW YORK (AP) -- Let's review the very popular assumption that life is sweet in middle class America's comfortable 3-bedroom, 1 1/2 bath home, especially now that high-tech stocks are making everyone rich.
It isn't so, of course, but life goes on as if it is. Stockbrokers call homeowners, banks offer them credit, ocean cruise lines entice them, carmakers beg their business.
Some of these middle-class Americans themselves believe the popular portrayal, and wonder why they too can't get rich and lounge around the swimming pool as they do in those glossy magazines.
And the reason they can't, suggests an academic study, is that such a comfortable world really doesn't exist, except in portrayals. It will be published in May by Yale University Press as ''The Fragile Middle Class.''
Right there in the title the academic authors challenge the assumption that the middle class is the bulwark of economic society. And also that herein lies the sturdy future of American society.
The simplified explanation is in the subtitle, ''Americans in Debt.'' Debt, the authors indicate and demonstrate, is smearing the image. ''The middle class is not so secure as it once seemed.''
The causes are seemingly well-known: employment volatility and income loss, sickness and injury, and divorce. To this, the study adds two more: homeownership, and too much credit.
It is in the analyses of these factors that authors Teresa Sullivan of the University of Texas at Austin, Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School, and Benno Schmidt of Texas School of Law, make their contribution. As in assessing blame on home ownership.
Rather than being a contributant to problems, for example, owning a home has been widely viewed as the anchor of the middle class, and to blame it for anything is even viewed as unAmerican.
Homeowners are more likely than renters to look after property. They are likely to be voters, volunteers and contributors. In the popular view they are financially responsible.
But too often they serious debtors as well. In recent years, the authors point out, mortgage debt has climbed much faster than the value of homes securing that debt, and about half the debtors in bankruptcies are identified as homeowners.
''Many homeowners are struggling harder than ever to hang on to their chief symbol of participation in the middle class,'' the authors say. ''And the bankruptcy courts are often their last stop to try to stabilize economically before they face foreclosure.''
Borrowing on the house may sometimes be too easy. Multiple mortgages may be available and equity lines of credit too. And there are tax advantages: Much of the mortgage interest is tax-deductible.
The credit card may be the final straw. Technically, it is but one category of consumer debt, but ''three characteristics make it very different from other consumer debt,'' the authors say.
First, the credit decision is different. Credit card debt is extended long after the initial application, at a time when the lender knows little about the borrower's current finances.
The borrowing decision is different. Growing in harmless-looking increments, the debt might reach $25,000, an amount the borrower might never had considered borrowing in bulk.
Third, the payment schedules are different. The debtor may become ever more indebted while paying the minimum required every month precisely on time.
Still another credit-card factor plays a role in the explanation offered by Sullivan, Warren and Westbrook. It is solicitations, pre-approved, offered to people who might be in financial trouble.
The book contains disturbing evidence about the fragility of what we like to think is the sturdy center that binds the American economy.
Such as ''the stubborn belief that Americans should buy and retain a family home at all costs.''
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