Middle class

Remembering the families at the center of the financial crisis

September 13, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

The plight of the Americans that were hurt most has been largely forgotten in the power politics that have overcome financial reform.

By Sheila Bair

foreclosed-house-620xaFORTUNE -- I told myself I wasn't going to do a "Lehman" column given the media frenzy over this month's five-year anniversary of that institution's bankruptcy. But in researching a new book I am writing for young adults about the 2008 financial crisis, I have been uncomfortably reminded of the hardship so many families encountered because of the crisis, particularly their kids.

Their plight has been largely forgotten in the power politics that have overcome financial reform. It's all about winners and losers, with regulators and reform advocates pitted against a powerful industry lobbying machine, oiled by political money and the grease of revolving door jobs. The objective of protecting the public from another recession brought on by an unstable financial sector seems lost in the Washington shuffle.

So let me recount the heartbreaking memories of the families I have interviewed. They bear tragic similarities. Their problems usually started with a steeply resetting mortgage payment, or job loss or cutback, frequently combined with an unexpected health problem not covered by insurance. Whatever the catalyst, it is almost always followed by high levels of stress for the family, sleepless nights for parents and kids, deteriorating grades at school, lost hope as savings are depleted, and finally the loss of a home. The kids give up their rooms, their pets, their schools, their neighborhoods, and will always live with the traumatic memories of their forced dislocation.

MORE: Are we ready for the next meltdown?

To be sure, many of the parents I have interviewed bear some responsibility for their troubles. As home prices escalated, they repeatedly refinanced their houses to pull out cash. When the housing market turned, they were left with unaffordable mortgage debt, which far exceeded the value of their homes. But these cash-out refis were not always done to pay for fancy vacations or flat screen TVs as apologists for Wall Street would have you believe. Rather, more typically, the money was used to pay for college tuition, medical bills, or simply to help make ends meet.

Several of the families I interviewed never participated in the housing craze. They had traditional 30-year, fixed rate mortgages that they could no longer pay when they lost their jobs or suffered pay cuts. They did nothing wrong except live in a country where we temporarily deluded ourselves into thinking that a "self-regulating" financial sector tethered to a housing asset bubble could provide a solid foundation for prosperity.

These families are now clawing their way back. Many are living in apartments or spartan rental homes. Most have regained employment, but at significantly lower wages. Several have managed to start rebuilding their savings. Their kids have grown to accept getting by with less. Some have foregone college, as their parents depleted their college accounts in a desperate attempt to hold onto their homes. Instead, they join the military or try to find work in a teen labor force which has a 24% unemployment rate. Others go to college by borrowing heavily. They graduate, then move back home, taking a low-paying job. As young people, they should be filled with hope and optimism. Instead, they confront limited job opportunities, reduced standards of living, and mountains of student debt.

MORE: Government banks $15 billion on Citigroup bailout

Their lives, like so many across the country, are improving only after years of personal struggle. Protecting them from another crisis should be regulators' highest priority.

Some say that the people who participated in the bailouts five years ago (and I was one) are "heroes" because we "saved the system". But it didn't take heroism to throw trillions of government cash at big financial institutions. The true heroes are those regulators who can show the courage to tame the system against the fierce lobbying of the very institutions that benefited from the government's largesse.

As the Lehman bankruptcy assumes its place in the annals of our financial history, it saddens me to think how historians will characterize the timid reform effort that has followed so far. With the Dodd-Frank financial reform law barely one-third implemented, regulators still have the opportunity to make the post-Lehman era their finest hour. I hope they rise to the occasion.

Sheila C. Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from 2006 to 2011, is the author of Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street From Wall Street and Wall Street From Itself released in paperback this month.

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