CHICAGO – As a young scholar, Elizabeth Warren traveled to federal courthouses, studying families overwhelmed by debt. She brought along a photocopier, gathering reams of statistics as she tried to answer one question: Why were these folks going bankrupt?
Warren, then a law professor, wasn’t satisfied with textbook explanations. So she sat in courtrooms, listening to debtors’ stories. She interviewed lawyers and judges, duplicated bankruptcy filings on a copier – nicknamed R2-D2 – that she hauled around to save printing costs. She teamed up with two professor-colleagues to review the documents and build a database.
Warren had suspected bankruptcy court might be a last stop for deadbeats, or maybe the very poor. Instead, she discovered mostly middle-class people, many who’d suffered a bad break – an illness, a divorce, a job loss. It was a predicament she understood. When Warren was 12 years old, her father had a heart attack. Her mother went to work in a minimum-wage job at Sears to pay the bills.
Warren’s foray into bankruptcy was the first step in a four-decade journey that has come to define her public profile and shape her politics. As a law professor, prominent bankruptcy expert, consumer watchdog, Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Warren consistently has championed economic reforms – with mixed results – to boost the middle class.
“The American middle class was in a lot more trouble than anyone had previously thought,” she told The Associated Press, describing her bankruptcy research, “and year by year, the stories have gotten worse. ... The game has become a little more tilted and a little more tilted against hardworking families.”
Warren has been a merciless critic of credit card companies, big banks, lobbyists and Wall Street financiers, blaming them for policies and practices she has labeled as predatory, greedy or corrupt. At the same time, she cites her bankruptcy studies for revealing the real damage caused by these economic forces. It ultimately led to her prescient warnings about the economic collapse of 2008. And she continues to cite her focus on the middle class as she warns of another on the horizon.
“I’ve spent most of my career getting to the bottom of what’s happening to working families in America,” Warren recently wrote in a post titled “The Coming Economic Crash and How to Stop It.”
Warren once explained to one of her Harvard Law School students why she liked bankruptcy law. U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat and Warren supporter, recalls the senator telling him bankruptcy was about second chances and “the way in which people can get to pick themselves up and we help them start again after they fall.”
It wasn’t just the topic but how Warren and her colleagues pursued their research that set them apart.
Their work began in the early 1980s, when scholars tended to focus on academic papers. But Warren joined two colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin – Jay Westbrook, a law professor and bankruptcy expert, and Teresa Sullivan, a sociologist – for an on-the-ground study. In research that spanned a decade, they visited bankruptcy courts, read through more than 1,500 bankruptcy filings, interviewed hundreds facing financial ruin and analyzed the results.
They wrote a book about their work. And in 2003, Warren joined her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, to write another financial book that concluded “having a child now is the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial disaster.”
Throughout those years, Warren fought hard against proposed legislation to make it harder to file for bankruptcy. She argued it would punish those who’d lost everything through no fault of their own. She called out then-Sen. Joe Biden, who supported the measure, noting many banks and credit card companies were incorporated in his home state of Delaware.
Warren was stung by the bill’s passage. “It hurt then, and it still hurts now,” she wrote in “A Fighting Chance.”
Warren’s bluntness in challenging Biden or other Democrats doesn’t surprise colleagues. Among them is Lynn LoPucki, a professor at the UCLA School of Law who has co-written several legal texts with Warren. “She doesn’t have a public persona and then say something different in private,” he says.
Friends also praise Warren as a skilled communicator who can translate economic terms into understandable language.
“Elizabeth can take a very complicated set of rules that most people think has nothing to do with their lives and in a small amount of time explain why they should care very deeply about it,” says Melissa Jacoby, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who worked with Warren on a 1995 bankruptcy commission.
Warren moved into consumer advocacy shortly after the 2008 election as the nation’s financial system was on the brink of collapse. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tapped her to be on a congressional oversight panel to monitor the $700 billion bank bailout package.
Warren used her new platform to lobby for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a watchdog agency that would better regulate mortgages, student loans, credit cards and other financial products. Republican opposition prevented her from becoming its director.
But Warren returned to Washington a few years later – as a U.S. senator, ousting Republican Sen. Scott Brown in her first bid for public office.
Now a presidential candidate, Warren frequently calls for structural changes in the government.
In her memoir, she lamented the bailout panel that “couldn’t change a system that seemed hell-bent on protecting the big guys and leaving everyone else on the side of the road.”
But she also said that experience taught her an important lesson:
“When you have no real power, go public, really public. The public is where the real power is.”