Relying on panel data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), this study finds that about half the study sample (N = 5,304) never experienced annual debt between 1985 and 2008, that the vast majority of those who incurred annual debt were short-term (1 year) or intermittent debtors (2-4 years), that the proportion of the study sample in debt for the most part declined over time, but also that the level of debt increased. Multinomial regression results indicated that health status and level of changes in income are robust predictors of debt in general, that age and race/ethnicity are robust predictors of short-term and intermittent debt, that locus of control, family structure during adolescence, SES, work effort, and marital status are robust predictors of intermittent and chronic debt, and that self-esteem, gender, SES, and work effort are robust predictors of chronic debt. Findings challenge blanket contentions that a culture of debt characterizes individuals and families in the U.S and they present a more nuanced portrait of debtors than the stereotype as young and single.

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