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University of Iowa News Release


May 27, 2009

UI Obermann Center convenes think tank to study debt

The University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Studies is convening a think tank of nationally known researchers to study households in financial distress, and many of them will be available for interviews during breaks in the seminar.

"Borrowing to the Brink: Consumer Debt in America" takes place June 8-13. The group will explore escalating consumer debt and bankruptcy using data from the 2007 Consumer Bankruptcy Project. The project is the largest, most representative academic study of consumer bankruptcy and draws from written surveys, bankruptcy court records and telephone interviews with members of 2,500 bankrupt households.

The 12 participants in the Obermann Center's summer seminar will come at the issue from all angles: consumerism laws, medical bankruptcy, declines in purchasing power, the rise of available credit, fraudulent lending, affordability of home ownership, student loan debt, racial stereotyping in the U.S. bankruptcy system and potential reforms to the bankruptcy code.

"Debt shapes nearly every American's life, affecting people's health, work, family relationships and retirement. By studying families who filed bankruptcy, this seminar can help us understand how to limit the harms of consumer borrowing," said UI Associate Professor of Law Katherine Porter, who is directing the seminar.
NOTE TO MEDIA: The researchers can discuss credit card debt, foreclosure and how financial problems affect families. To schedule an interview with any of the experts listed below, please contact UI law student Ryan Andersen at or 319-331-2960.


Seminar participants Robert Lawless, Ronald Mann, Katherine Porter and Elizabeth Warren were involved with drafting the new legislation "The Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights," which protects debt-ridden consumers from many of the surprise charges common in the industry.

Mann, a law professor at Columbia University, is the foremost legal scholar of credit cards in America. He is the author of the acclaimed book, "Charging Ahead: The Growth of Payment Card Markets." He can discuss his research on how different age groups accumulate credit card debt.

Kevin T. Leicht, UI sociology professor, co-authored "Postindustrial Peasants: The Illusion of Middle Class Prosperity." He is looking at how consumers have used credit as a crutch to make up for lack of income growth in recent decades.

Angela K. Littwin of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law can discuss her research on usury and credit card use among low-income consumers.


Dov Cohen, cultural psychologist from the University of Illinois, is an expert on honor and stigma. He can discuss the shame associated with bankruptcy and the experiences of different racial groups in choosing to file bankruptcy.

Deborah Thorne, associate professor of sociology at Ohio University, can discuss how couples and families with children cope with financial hardship.


Jerry Anthony, associate professor in the UI Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning, can discuss the pros and cons of housing cost burden ratios.

Marianne B. Culhane, professor of law at Creighton University, had her research hotly debated in Congress during the bankruptcy reform. She's currently studying how families use bankruptcy to try to save their homes.

Robert Lawless, the Galowich-Huzienga Faculty Scholar at the University of Illinois College of Law, is an expert on small business bankruptcies. His current research is on entrepreneurs and financial distress.

Katherine Porter, associate professor of law at the UI, often testifies before Congress on home ownership issues. She just published research indicating that a majority of people who file bankruptcy have unaffordable mortgage payments and may struggle to succeed in saving their homes.

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and author of "Bleeding the Patient: The Consequences of Corporate Health Care," can discuss medical debt and the costs of health care. She and Thorne surveyed 1,771 Americans who filed for bankruptcy and found that half of the financial catastrophes were related to medical expenses.


For more information on the seminar, visit

The Obermann Center for Advanced Studies provides an environment and resources conducive to the exchange of ideas. Scholars from a broad range of disciplines and institutions interact to create and disseminate new knowledge. Obermann Scholars have published numerous books and articles and have been awarded many external research grants and fellowships for projects launched at the center. For more information on the center, visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070,; Diana Baculis, Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 319-335-4360,