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Part 1, 2, 3, 4


RISE graduate Annika Graham became a homeowner in May 2005. She and her four children now enjoy a six-bedroom home. Behind her are trophies won by the champion girls step dancing team she coaches.Photo by Chris Farrell

Dixon stops by a local school to visit one of the graduates of her program, Annika Graham. Graham stands tall in high-heeled boots and beams as she shows us around.

"This is my home away from home, Bellevue Junior High School," she says. "I've been a secretary here now five years. I'm also a coach of our Distinctive Steppers, which is 27 young ladies, grades seven through nine. I'm also a proud homeowner ever since May 2005!"

Graham is 34, a single mother of four. She recalls the year and a half it took her to save for her down payment. "It was hard," she says. "I got frustrated. You know, I was like, 'I can't do this, save this money every month. Not buy any shoes. Not take the kids out on Saturdays because we love the movies.'"

"Yeah, but didn't you put a picture of shoes up in your closet?" asks Dixon.

"Yes!" says Graham. "That was just saying I couldn't buy them. I could look at them, but I couldn't buy them at the time because I had a goal. And I wanted to meet that goal. Not for myself, but for my family."

She stuck with it. Now, her mortgage is less than she used to pay in rent. Her children are thrilled at moving from a three-bedroom apartment to a six-bedroom house. They're living in a better neighborhood where her kids fish at a nearby lake.

"It's an adventure for them. It's something they never had a chance to do. So every chance that they get they're on the lake."

Graham says her jump to homeownership has inspired her kids.

Graham introduces her colleague Montinique Freeman. "I'm trying to help [her] become a homeowner also," Graham explains.

But Freeman is a little wary.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm not that comfortable with purchasing a home," Freeman says, "and it seems overwhelming."

Graham tries to encourage her. "And again when it happens, you're gonna love it, you're gonna love it, you're gonna love it!"

"She's quite the entertainer," Freeman says with a laugh. "I know we had a Christmas party at her home, and it was quite nice and she is the perfect entertainer, and that home comes in handy because we hang out there a lot.

"We do," agrees Graham. "We like to karaoke."

"What would you sing to her if she got her own home?" Dixon asks Graham.

"People all over the world," Graham starts to sing and Freeman joins in, "join hands. Start a Love Train, Love Train," the two friends sing.

"That's our song!" they say.

There are people like Annika Graham all over the country, beating the odds, saving money, and building wealth. RISE, Judge John Ninfo, and other activists and educators nationwide are betting on big returns from financial literacy.

Bankruptcy has long been the last legal option for anyone burdened with too much debt. But bankruptcy has always raised questions that go far beyond money. For society, the struggle is finding the right balance between honoring debts and a fresh start.

In 2005, lenders convinced Congress that too many people were going belly up. The lenders were right, but mostly for the wrong reasons. The social stigma traditionally attached to bankruptcy has eroded somewhat in recent decades. But that's not what's really driving the bankruptcy boom of the past quarter century. With heightened global competition, everyone faces increased job insecurity and earnings instability. And the modern credit economy, with its loose lending standards, is hazardous to the ill-informed or the unlucky.

As one bankruptcy authority in Memphis put it, Congress only made the bankruptcy door a little smaller and the process of going through that door a little meaner. But odds are the new bankruptcy law won't succeed at closing that door altogether.

The new federal bankruptcy law is only a year old. Many bankruptcy judges, lawyers, and academics agree that the mammoth bill has many flaws. But there is no real appetite on Capitol Hill to revisit the topic, at least not anytime soon.


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