The Federal Reserve says the U.S. economy is strong. But the same can’t be said of American consumers, according to several new reports.
One such report, released by Pew Charitable Trusts, finds nearly half of U.S. households (47%) have trouble covering basic expenses. To do so, consumers have to:
- spend all of their income;
- go into debt; or
- dip into savings.
As a result, most “couldn’t withstand a serious financial emergency,” says Diana Elliott, a Pew research manager. “That really is the contrast to the macroeconomic story” in the U.S.
Consider this, she adds: if a typical middle-class household had to weather a period of joblessness without any income, they would likely exhaust their available savings within 21 days, according to the Pew report.
If that same family also cashed in all their retirement investments to get by, they would likely burn through those assets within four months.
Nor is there much flexibility in family budgets, says Elliott. That’s because many Americans have been devoting more of their income to housing, health care, personal insurance and pensions over the last three decades—after adjusting for inflation, their average annual expenses have risen 6% to $51,105 during that period.
Further, U.S. families’ earnings have largely been flat for the same amount of time, adds Elliott.
Still, according to the Fed, the U.S. economy has roared back to life in recent months after muddling its way out of the Great Recession over the past seven years.
This claim is based on the fact that the unemployment rate has plunged to 5.6% from 6.7% over the past year. As well, GDP surged at an annual pace of 4.8% in second and third quarters of 2014, with growth projected to be above 3% in Q4.
What should be considered, however, is that more than half (55.6%) of U.S. consumers have subprime or near-prime credit scores, meaning they must pay premiums to borrow if they qualify at all for traditional loans and credit cards.
So, we need to “start thinking [about] who the economy is improving for,” says Kasey Wiedrich, director of applied research at a national non-profit called the Corporation for Enterprise Development.
Emmanuel Saez, economist at University of California at Berkeley, claims updated tax data shows the economy has improved for only the 1%, or families who earn at least $391,960—that’s more than seven times the annual median household income of $54,417, according to Sentier Research.
Including capital gains, says Saez, top earners pulled in nearly 19% of all income in 2013.