This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

Scholars’ Conversations: Elizabeth Martin, Consumption, Credit and Debt 

by Tim Rosenkranz

I had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth C. Martin, PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University. Her paper, “Regulating the Risk of Debt,” won the 2020 Best Student Paper Award from our ASA Consumers and Consumption Section. We talked about the cost of credit and the shocking differences between U.S. states’ debt protections. Elizabeth’s ongoing dissertation research is a fascinating analysis of the political economy of consumer debt regulations. We also discussed her coming projects about the relationship between racial inequality and student debt, as well as between state credit ratings and economic insecurity.

Tim: Congratulations! You won the 2020 Best Student Paper Award from our section for your paper “Regulating the Risk of Debt: Exemption Laws and Economic Insecurity Across US States, 1986-2012.” What is the paper about?

Elizabeth: Thank you! My paper examines asset exemption laws, a protection for those defaulting on unsecured debts. These protections have a long history in U.S. states, with protections existing in statutes since at least the 1600s. They set the terms of protections, typically listing the amount of wages and different types of property that can be protected from debt collectors. Although all U.S. states protect certain assets in the face of debt collection, protections vary significantly among states. For instance, in 2012, a single debtor in Ohio not filing for bankruptcy was entitled to exempt $125,000 of home equity, while a similar debtor in neighboring Michigan was only entitled to exempt $3,500. Asset exemptions are a last resort protection that simply allow a debtor to not lose their property and earnings. This differs from lots of other social protections that we typically discuss, that give families resources more directly. Further, unlike social welfare transfers, exemptions assist families economically while also limiting the capacity of banks and creditors to extract resources from debtors. 

My paper asks three questions: what determines how protective a state’s exemptions are, does protectiveness matter for a state’s population economic insecurity, and if so, does that depend on economic conditions or population makeup in a state. I compiled state statutes from the mid-80s until 2012 and coded how much value of home, personal property, cars, tools for work, wages, and bank accounts are protected from debt collectors. What I find is that higher protections are related to lower rates of economic insecurity during recessionary periods and in states with a more privileged population. I look forward to sharing more of my findings once it gets through peer review! 

Tim: You are a PhD Candidate at Ohio State University—please introduce us more to your current research and what does “consumption” mean in your work?

Elizabeth: My work is generally at the intersection of stratification and political economy, with focuses on economic insecurity, credit and debt, and social policy. I’m really interested in how the state and policy affect economic outcomes for households, especially the most disadvantaged. I also study student loans, financial crises, credit card debt, and even state credit ratings. Consumption comes in through my focus on credit and debt. People have to consume, but increasingly have fewer resources with which to do so. Access to credit is one way to bridge the gap between consumption goals and current resources, but it comes at a cost—literally! Of course, not all debt is created equal, and we see costs and access to different types of credit products vary by class and race, as do the consequences of indebtedness.  

Tim: How was the process of transforming your curiosity for this topic into a research question and a project?

Elizabeth: I started graduate school broadly interested in inequality and neoliberal governance, thinking about big general questions. What role do state institutions play in ameliorating or exacerbating inequality? What kinds of extractive markets come to fruition without a solid welfare state? Are the powerful better able to exploit the disadvantaged when the state does not regulate markets? Coming in as a non-sociology major, I used my first year of graduate school as a time to read widely and think about the state, safety nets, and insecurity. Through my advisor, Rachel Dwyer, I became interested in credit and debt as a key case to study these dynamics. 

As I was trying to come up with a master’s thesis topic for a fellowship application, I came across a report from a consumer advocacy group on exemption laws and how they vary so widely by state. Naively, I was just shocked that state protections could be so wildly different! My MA paper unfolded from there. I wanted to understand whether these huge differences in protections mattered for population insecurity. My dissertation is an extension of this project.

Tim: What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Elizabeth: It’s so hard to choose just one! Research on the political economy of credit has been super influential in my work, like Monica Prasad’s 2012 book, The Land of Too Much.  Prasad’s book shaped my understanding of the U.S. state as not non-interventionist, but interventionist through consumer regulations rather than more effective welfare state spending. The idea of access to credit and welfare state spending as potential tradeoffs has been influential in how I think about the role of credit in the political economy. Rather than subsidize important collective goods, like education, housing, and safety nets, the U.S. structures loose credit markets so individuals can finance these goods on their own, by taking on debts. Rachel Dwyer’s 2018 Annual Review on Credit, Debt, and Inequality is another strong influence, especially the call for a relational approach to understanding credit and debt. 

Tim: What is next for you? What can we look forward to in your work?

Elizabeth: Right now, I’m especially focused on my dissertation, which examines the relationship between state policy environments and experiences of economic insecurity. The first empirical chapter is the paper described above. The second empirical chapter analyzes how U.S. state political and economic environments differentially moderate the relationship between financial shocks and insecurity in households. The third chapter dives deeper into the case of medical shocks. I’m actually getting ready to start collecting data for this chapter, which I’m really excited about! 

In addition to my dissertation work, I’ve been working hard on a number of collaborative projects that I hope to be able to share soon! A few examples include one paper that looks at racial inequality in the effects of student debt on financial stress over the Great Recession, another that examines the relationship between state credit ratings and economic insecurity, and another on financial risk and population exposure to student debt. As I continue my academic career, I look forward to continuing to engage with questions about consumption and inequality, and to learning from the marvelous scholarship produced by members of this section.

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research explores the global commodification processes of national destination marketing that turn nations into tourist destinations.

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