Foreclosing the American Dream

Sheila Suess Kennedy

Recently, I served on the doctoral committee of a student who was writing her dissertation on the “Lived Experience of Foreclosure.” My student’s research illuminated the interdependence of economic stability and self-worth in American culture in a way I hadn’t previously appreciated. 

There weren’t many people who were willing to share their experiences with her. And the reasons for that reluctance could be inferred from the insights of those who did respond. In America, after all, homeownership is a cultural marker, tangible evidence of solid and responsible citizenship. Home is more than a roof over one’s head or a place to live; it’s a time-honored symbol of the American Dream–and its cultural symbolism makes foreclosure an American nightmare.

Research on the effects of the mortgage default epidemic that accompanied the Great Recession has confirmed foreclosure’s more “macro level” consequences: foreclosures are a threat to neighborhood stability and community well-being; they affect predominantly the low-income and minority populations most likely to be hard-hit by economic downturns; they create an environment conducive to criminal activity and lead to disinvestment.

Those consequences are bad enough, but it is the experience of real people caught up in an economic downturn not of their making–and the lessons that can be drawn from those experiences–that can help us shape policies to minimize a repeat of the recent epidemic.

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