As the last vestiges of wealth were being stripped away, John and Kim Ryan couldn't help but be startled at how far they had fallen.
Along the way, the couple made a few mistakes. In the early 1990s, they purchased their home before selling a smaller one, saddling themselves with two mortgages for a time. Neither saved enough.
"I'm kind of embarrassed we didn't take better care of the money," Kim Ryan said.
But nowhere in the hundreds of pages of dunning notices and legal briefs on file with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court is there evidence of some wild investment or irresponsible career move. Nowhere is there a hint of unbridled spending.
"They look like you and me," said Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and co-author of a book on the rising rate of personal bankruptcy in America, who reviewed the Ryans' court files at The Times' request.
In fact, what happened in the Ryans' case — an economic implosion triggered by a succession of layoffs for John and a medical crisis for Kim — has become increasingly common among the nation's working families during the last 25 years.
Setbacks such as job losses and prolonged illnesses have always taken their toll, of course. But they haven't always packed the economic punch they now do.
Since the 1970s, the odds that a family will see its income chopped in half when hit by this kind of shock have nearly doubled to more than 20%, according to statistics generated by The Times in cooperation with researchers at UC Davis.
"Working families stand a good chance of sustaining big blows to their incomes even from fairly commonplace events," said UC Davis economist Marianne E. Page, who with colleague Ann Huff Stevens helped The Times with its analysis. "The odds of suffering a sizable setback have grown considerably in recent years."
Paradox of Prosperity
Throughout this series, The Times has sought to make sense of an American paradox: why so many people report being less financially secure even as the nation, by many measures, has grown far more prosperous.
The answer, the newspaper has found, lies in the shifting of economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families.
Over the last quarter of a century, many safeguards that people once counted on to shield them from financial harm have been weakened or completely lost. These include formal protections such as guaranteed corporate pensions and state and federal unemployment benefits. And they include informal ones, like the loyalty that employers once showed their workers by offering secure jobs with relatively little prospect of long-term layoff. Other cushions that families like the Ryans have relied on, such as the financial stability that comes with a college education, also have eroded.
The result is that families, even well-off ones, operate with little margin for economic error. And they can pay a steep price if anything goes wrong. The price grows exponentially if, as in the Ryans' case, several things go wrong at once.
The Times has tried to gauge the effect of this risk shift over the last 25 years by tracing the rising volatility of family income.
During the early '70s, the inflation-adjusted income of most of those in the middle of the economic spectrum — making about $50,000 a year in today's terms — bounced up and down by no more than $6,500 annually. By the beginning of this decade, those fluctuations had climbed to as much as $13,500, the newspaper's figures show. At the same time, the increase in volatility has been far greater for the working poor, while even top earners haven't been immune from ever-larger income swings.