The Dr. Phil Years

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 25, 2012


The decision to aim for a broader, general-interest audience came in 2002, when Warren was working on data from the third iteration of the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, which she co-directed at Harvard. As before, the results would generate numerous papers and reports, from Warren and others, arguing that ordinary middle-class families who had worked hard and played by the rules were, nevertheless, increasingly finding themselves in financial distress and, ultimately, bankruptcy.

Warren had been writing much the same thing for years, during a career that had taken her to the Rutgers School of Law-Newark, the University of Houston Law Center, the University of Texas School of Law, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and, since 1992, Harvard.

Warren was dissecting this new Bankruptcy Project data just after learning her first tough lesson in politics. As chief advisor to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, she had advocated against legislation intended to make it harder for consumers to declare bankruptcy. She had won over then–First Lady Hillary Clinton, who helped secure her husband's veto of the bill in 2000. But the very next year, as a newly elected senator — heavily funded by banking-industry executives, as Warren would write in her next book — Clinton voted in favor of the same legislation. (It eventually became law in 2005.)

Warren's frustration led her to believe she was talking to the wrong audience. "I had written for students, for professors, and for policy makers," she says. "But it hadn't made much impact for regular people. Things had gotten worse."

Warren tracked down literary agent Susan Rabiner, who had handled her first book, As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America, published by Oxford University Press in 1989. Her new proposal: interest commercial publishers in a book about the precarious financial position of middle-class families.

The book, The Two-Income Trap, Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke, would reach the New York Times bestseller list in 2004. "This was a no-brainer in many ways," Rabiner says. "It was the right person, who's doing the right research, who has something to say, and can say it in a compelling way."

"I knew immediately that she was the real thing," says Jo Ann Miller, the former acquiring editor at Basic Books, in New York. Miller, now a freelance editor and ghostwriter, says that Warren needed little help writing for a general audience. "We encouraged her to include personal anecdotes," Miller says. "We helped her a little bit, but she's a natural writer."

A review of some of Warren's past writing shows that it was always livelier, and more accessible, than most academic prose. "The huffy-puffy part of academic writing never appealed to me," she says.

But she also made a deliberate effort with the new book. "I always have in mind a specific person when I'm writing," Warren says. She tries to write in conversation with that person: a student when she's writing a textbook; a fellow academic for a research paper; a US senator for a policy paper.

For Two-Income Trap, she chose her niece, Michelle — a high-school math teacher, married with a young son at the time. "I wrote this book to explain to Michelle what had happened in the world," Warren says, "and how it affected her."

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