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Mapping Fragility – Functions of Wealth and Social Classes in US Household Finance

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Examining the crucial role of poverty and inequality in shaping household indebtedness.

Which households are more exposed to financial risk and to what extent is their debt systemically relevant? To provide an answer, we advance a new classification of the population, adapted from Fessler and Schürz (2017), based on the type of wealth families own and their sources of income. Then, we investigate data from eleven waves of the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), a triennial survey run by the U.S. Federal Reserve, to explore the association of different debt configurations and motives to get into debt with our class distinctions. Our new approach allows us to assess competing hypotheses about debt and financial vulnerability that have so far been analyzed separately in disconnected strands of literature. The results of our study reinforce and qualify the controversial hypothesis that relative poverty and inequality of income and access to services have been important factors explaining household indebtedness and its relationship with economic growth over time.