Growing up, every decision for my family involved a careful calculation about how we could pay for it — a visit to the doctor, a tank of gas to drive to my grandparents’ house, a new pair of school shoes.
My Aunt Bert cut everyone’s hair, my Aunt Bee bought my Easter dress every year, and my brother David paid for his school clothes with money from his paper route. There were plenty of ups and downs. When my father had a heart attack, the store where he worked changed his job and cut his pay. We lost our car, and my mother went to work answering phones at Sears so we could make the mortgage payments.
My parents worked hard all their lives. My three older brothers carved out their own futures—one was career air force, one worked heavy construction, and one started his own business. I went to college on a scholarship, got married, and started teaching in an elementary school. But I never shook off the worry: did we have enough money to cover basic expenses, enough money to help our parents retire, enough money to build secure futures for our children?
After I graduated law school, I started focusing on what was happening to other hard working families like ours. The story isn’t good. For a generation now, incomes have been flat, while basic expenses like housing, health care, and child care have risen sharply. Families have turned more and more to debt to finance education, to pay medical bills, to cover a cutback in hours or a job loss—or just to make it to the end of the month. With each passing year, families have found themselves with less economic cushion to absorb a major health care crisis, a job loss, or a divorce. What it means to be middle class in this country – having a good job, owning a home, putting together the money to pay for college – seems to be slipping out of reach.
Today, it’s harder than ever for middle class families in Massachusetts and across the country to get by. Each day, more families find themselves deeply worried about money. They wake up to news about wild swings in the stock market and a government that seems unable to exercise even the most basic common sense. They see shuttered windows on Main Street and hear about the latest neighbor to lose a job or a home. They wonder what will be the next shoe to drop in their communities or in their own families.
A few years ago, I decided to tackle one part of the problem—big banks that drained billions of dollars out of families’ pockets by hiding costs in fine print and selling predatory loans. I started to work on an idea for a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) because I believed it could help make a real difference in the lives of middle class families. The concept is simple: in a world where debt has become so common and necessary, families need to be able to understand and to compare loan products like mortgages and credit cards so they can make good financial decisions. The costs and risks of financial deals should be clear and transparent — no tricks, no traps.
After Congress enacted the new CFPB last year, President Obama asked me to help set it up. Starting from our first weeks, we were determined to make things better for American families. We worked to make federal mortgage paperwork shorter and easier to understand, we set-up an Office of Servicemember Affairs to help military families navigate the financial repercussions of deployments and frequent moves, and we developed systems to make sure that even trillion-dollar banks comply with the law. We put in place the building blocks for an agency that will make credit markets safer and fairer for families.
Last week, my role setting up the consumer agency ended. My husband and I packed up the car and made it back to our home of 17 years in Massachusetts.
I left Washington, but I don’t plan to stop fighting for middle class families. I spent years working against special interests and have the battle scars to show it – and I have no intention of stopping now. It is time for me to think hard about what role I can play next to help rebuild a middle class that has been hacked at, chipped at, and pulled at for more than a generation—and that that is under greater strain every day.
In the weeks ahead, I want to hear from you about the challenges we face and how we get our economy growing again. I also want to hear your ideas about how we can fix what all of us – regardless of party – know is a badly broken political system. In Washington, I saw up close and personal how much influence special interests have over our law-making, and I saw just how hard it is for families to be heard. I want to hear your thoughts about how we can make sure that our voices –our families, our friends, and our neighbors — are heard again.
We have a lot of work to do in our commonwealth and our country. We need to rebuild our economy family by family and block by block. We need to create new jobs and to fix our broken housing market. We need to make sure that there is real accountability over Wall Street and that the greed and recklessness that created the last financial crisis do not create the next one. We need to restore the hope of a secure retirement and the promise of a good education. We need to stop measuring our economy by profits and executive compensation at our largest companies and start measuring it by how many families can stand securely in the middle class.
I am glad to be back home. And I’m looking forward to discussing with you what we can accomplish together.