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Lower-Income Americans Facing Fresh Financial Troubles

By Michael Cohn
January 15, 2013

Financial troubles appeared to be on the rise last month for lower-income Americans earning under $50,000, according to Consumer Reports, while wealthier Americans earning $100,000 or more saw their financial situations improve significantly.

The Consumer Reports Index's trouble tracker measure, which examines the financial difficulties Americans face, was stable overall, but improved dramatically for those wealthier Americans earning $100,000 or more (dropping to 19.6 from 33.2 a month earlier). Financial troubles were on the rise, however, for lower-income Americans earning under $50,000, climbing to 65.8 from 59.6 the prior month.

The situation could worsen this month, with the expiration of the payroll tax cut taking a bite out of most workers’ paychecks.

The most prevalent consumer troubles overall last month included the inability to afford medical bills or medications (12.7 percent), lost or reduced health-care coverage (8.2 percent), and missed payments on a major bill besides a mortgage (6.6 percent).

The Consumer Reports Index, an overall measure of Americans’ personal financial health, reported that middle-income Americans pulled back on spending this past holiday season.

Modest gains in consumer spending, however, were found among both the upper-income and lower-income households. Among larger retail purchases made in the past 30 days, used cars purchases were up, while new car purchases softened and homes were unchanged from the previous month. 

The Consumer Reports Index employment measure found that job losses are outpacing new job starts. Job starts in the past 30 days fell to 3.4 percent from 5.4 percent a month earlier, while job losses remained elevated and unchanged from last month at 5.8 percent.

“These indicators make a poor case for anyone claiming a majority of Americans are ready to re-engage in the economy,” said Ed Farrell, director of consumer insight at the Consumer Reports National Research Center, in a statement. “This month, middle-income families will be confronted by a paycheck that is lower than last month, and for some lower than last year, due to expiration of the payroll tax cut. If they are already not interested in spending, having less money to spend isn't going to help.”

Despite the problems with personal finances, the Consumer Reports Index's sentiment measure edged up slightly from last month, with modest gains across all income groups. Sentiment stands at 51.2, up 1.3 points from last month. The level of stress that consumers feel declined to 54.4 from 59.1 the previous month.

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