Fed Study: One-Fourth of Americans “Just Getting By” Financially
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The Fiscal Times
August 8, 2014

The Federal Reserve’s new survey of the economic well-being of Americans certainly puts some flesh and bones on the Wall Street Journal--NBC News poll this week highlighting Americans widespread pessimism about the economy and their children’s futures.

While many say they are “doing okay” or “living comfortably,” according to the Fed report,  one fourth of Americans said they were “just getting by” financially and another 13 percent said they were struggling to do so.

Related: Depressed and Worried, Americans Blame Obama and Congress  

Although the Great Recession officially ended five years ago, its lingering effects   continue to be felt by many Americans. Indeed, 34 percent of those interviewed for this study said they were “somewhat worse off” or “much worse off” financially than they had been five years earlier.

Moreover, about one in four people said they had delayed a major purchase or expense because of economic concerns while 18 percent acknowledged having postponed a “major life decision” such as getting married or buying a home as a result of the recession.

The Fed’s new “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households” also found that many Americans were woefully unprepared for retirement while others have concluded that retirement just isn’t in the cards for them for the foreseeable future.

A startling 31 percent of non-retirees admitted they have absolutely no retirement savings or pension – and that includes 19 percent  of people  55 to 64  years old who are nearing retirement.

“Among those ages 55 to 64 who had not yet retired,” the report said, “only 18 percent planned to follow the traditional retirement model of working full time until a set date and then stop working altogether.” About a quarter of the people in that group say they expect to keep working as long as possible, while 18 percent expected to retire and then work part-time.

Related: Gallup Finds Stunning Drop in Economic Confidence

The report also provides some insights to the impact of college debt – now totaling more than $1 trillion annually -- on average Americans.  Nearly a quarter of the population holds some type of education debt, either for themselves, their spouses or children, according to the Fed study. The average amount of education debt was $27,840.

“Some households struggle to service this debt, with 18 percent of those with debt for their own education indicating that they were behind on payments for these loans or reporting that they had loans in collections,” the Fed study said.

The new Fed study was designed to “capture a snapshot” of the financial well-being of American households and the problems they face, according to its authors.  It also attempts to gauge the country’s recovery from the recession and identify “perceived risks to their financial stability.”

Related: July Jobs Disappoint as Unemployment Ticks Up to 6.2 Percent

Josh Bivens, director of research and policy at the Economic Policy Institute, said, that public perception of the economy reflected in the report squares with his view that the economy “is obviously better than during the absolute teeth of the Great Recession but is still not a normal economy.”

“It’s not an economy where people sort of reliably expect that they’re going to see some real wage increases or household income increases any time in the near future,” Bivens said in an interview Friday. “My view of the data is that we still have a very damaged economy, and I feel like that’s coming through in this survey as well.”

The survey was conducted for the Federal Reserve Board by GfK, an online consumer research firm, between Sept. 17 and Oct.4, 2013.  A little more than 4,100 people completed the survey.

The release of the Fed study coincides with the findings of the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll this week showing that Americans are feeling highly pessimistic about the economy and their families’ futures. Despite the steady improvement in the job picture, 71 percent of adults think the country is on the “wrong track” and 76 percent of adults lack confidence that their children will enjoy a better life style than they have.

Among other findings of the Fed report:

  • Homeowners have a generally positive outlook for their local housing market. A plurality of homeowners anticipates that house prices where they live will increase over the 12 months following the survey.
  • Many complained of the lack of availability of credit. Thirty-one percent of those surveyed said they had applied for some kind of credit in the previous year, and about a third of them were turned down or granted less credit than they applied for. Moreover, 19 percent of respondents said they put off seeking credit because they assumed they would be turned down.
  • Many reported that their savings had been depleted. “Among those who had savings prior to 2008, 57 percent reported using up some or all of their savings in the Great Recession and its aftermath,” according to the report. And less than half said they could cover a hypothetical emergency expense of $400 without having to sell something or borrowing the amount.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.