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Fed says U.S. households show improved financial preparedness

In 2013, the Federal Reserve initiated a comprehensive survey, the Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households, which attempted to provide a snapshot of people’s financial lives.

At that time, just five years after the 2008 financial crisis, many were still reeling. Some had lost homes, others were forced to tap savings and retirement assets, and many were still out of work and/or contending with fewer hours.

Now the 2017 survey is out and there is good news: “Self-reported financial preparedness has improved substantially over the past five years.” Researchers found that 74 percent of adults said they were either doing OK or living comfortably in 2017.

Additionally, a separate report showed progress with overall debt levels. As of the end of the first quarter, overall household debt is well below the levels seen in the run-up to the 2008 crisis. The growth of student-loan debt has slowed, and subprime auto loans, which were exploding a few years ago, fell to a five-year low in the first quarter.

But while the Fed’s report highlighted that households have made great strides, it also exposed some lingering problems. For example, four in 10 adults, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would do so by selling something or borrowing money. Forty percent represents an improvement from half of adults in 2013 being ill-prepared for such an expense.

Another outgrowth of the recession was the increase in the number of people who have come to depend on financial support from, or provide such support to, their family or friends. Last year, approximately 1 in 10 adults received some form of financial support from someone living outside of their home.

Most commonly, that support was between parents and adult children. The money was for general expenses; help with rent or mortgage; educational expenses; and assistance making student loan payments. The support also went in the other direction, between adult children and their parents over the age of 60.

As I read through the Fed’s 66-page report, I thought about an email I recently received from a television viewer named Doug, who complained that one of my recent appearances on “CBS Evening News” painted too rosy an economic picture, relative to his experience.

I had reported that the April unemployment rate edged down to 3.9 percent, the lowest level since December 2000, and at the end of the segment, I noted that it was a “very good number.”

Doug wanted me to know that he isn’t doing as well as he was in 2000. I learned that he is employed, but at about the same salary he earned 18 years ago.

The Fed’s analysis helped explain why so many react to these instances of economic improvement the way Doug did. The report notes: “The overall positive trend in self-reported well-being masks some notable differences across groups. Adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher are far more likely (85 percent) to be at least doing okay financially than those with a high school degree or less (66 percent).” Additionally, “at each education level, blacks and Hispanics are worse off than whites.”

Doug’s email was a good reminder that even as overall numbers show improvement, there are many who are still smarting a decade after the worst recession since the Great Depression.

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