The students had 75 minutes to produce an essay on a topic given them at the test and were not permitted to use dictionaries or other aids. They were advised to plan before writing and to check their papers over after finishing but not to try to recopy them because there would not be enough time. The essays are, in effect, hand-written first drafts, with such revisions and corrections as the writers found time to make. All the essays printed here are organized, informative, and coherent, but even the best are not flawless and merely “adequate” papers exhibit several weaknesses and errors. It should be understood that in passing these papers the faculty is recognizing realistically the differences between an impromptu piece of writing and a paper prepared outside of class with adequate time for revising and polishing.
We provide here a sample essay topic, together with the scoring guide, and three sample essays, rated "6" (superior), "5" (strong), and "4" (adequate).
The Debt Debate (Adapted from "Caught in the Credit Card Vise")
"I'm still paying for groceries I bought for my family years ago," said Julie Pickett. She meant it literally. The Picketts are profiled in a report, titled "Borrowing to Make Ends Meet," by a nonpartisan public policy group called Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action.
Mrs. Pickett and her husband, Jerry, of Middletown Ohio, are trapped in the iron grasp of credit card debt. Julie Pickett stopped working full time when she had the twins. Jerry Pickett's business hit a downturn about the same time. The family's credit cards, said Mrs. Pickett, suddenly looked as "lifelines" to the daily necessities—food, gas, auto repairs, clothing for the children. Another child was born and the credit card debt eventually reached $40,000—an amount (with its perpetually increasing interest) that the Picketts are unable to pay off. The Picketts, like an increasing number of American families today are incurring debt at an increasing rate.
Harvard's bankruptcy law instructor, Elizabeth Warren, claims her studies show that "families in financial trouble are working hard, playing by the rules—and the game is stacked against them." Warren and others cite the increasing costs of childcare, housing, and education while real income, adjusted for inflation, has not kept pace. For an average family budget in 1973, 54% would go to mortgage, insurance, and other fixed costs, leaving 46% for discretionary items. In 2003 that same average family budget, resulting from two wage earners instead of one, would require 75% for mortgage, insurance, and fixed expenses leaving 25% for all other expenditures.
Others, however, like Boston College social economist Juliet B. Schor blame a crassly materialistic culture for creating the "overspent American." Take Karyn Bosnak, for example. Karyn, a TV producer, found herself in deep financial straights after she moved to New York to take a $100,000 a year job on an ill-fated courtroom program and quickly ran up $20,000 in credit-card debt. "Unfortunately, the job went away, but the bills didn't. In my mind I was making a lot of money, so I should live like I make a lot of money." Forced to accept a much lower paying job on an Animal Planet show, Bosnak scaled down her voracious spending habits, but still found herself carrying around bills that she estimated would take 40 years to pay off at the rate she was going.
According to the Demos report, between 1989 and 2001, credit card debt in America almost tripled and the savings rate steadily declined. In this period, credit card debt for middle-class families rose 75%, and for very low-income families, with annual incomes below $10,000, the increase was a staggering 184%. Some of this increase can be attributed to growing credit card use by teens. Nationally, nearly a third of high school students already use a credit card, according to Jump$start's 2002 survey.
Banks and other financial institutions provide important services. Credit cards provide a convenient and easy way to handle unexpected emergencies. A credit card is almost a necessity for transacting business online or securing reservations.
Advocates for financial reform, however, see banks and financial institutions as a large part of the problem of rising debt. In the 1980s, most states, including California, stopped enforcing any limit on credit card interest rates. "Late fees," according to the Demos report, "have become the fastest growing source of revenue for the industry, jumping from 1.7 billion in 1996 to 7.3 billion in 2002." Credit card companies continue to lower the monthly payment, increasing the length of time and cost to pay off the debt. Meanwhile credit card companies aggressively pursue new customers.
Many believe that Americans have simply become more and more comfortable with higher levels of debt. Robert Manning, professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Credit Card Nation, argues people now see credit as "an entitlement—it's not connected to having a job and understanding how much debt one can afford." Others argue that with recent annual wage and salary incomes adjusted for inflation increasing at only 0.8% or less, credit cards are their only option.
- Identify the arguments presented in the article.
- Explain whether or not you think credit card debt is a problem in America. Defend your position using your own reading, observations and experience.