Malcolm_Hadley.pngHadley Malcolm, USA TODAY12:06 a.m. EDT July 29, 2014
More than a third of the country is in trouble when it comes to paying debts on time; 35% of Americans have debt in collections, according to a study out Tuesday from the Urban Institute, which analyzed the credit files of 7 million Americans.
That means the debt is so far past due that the account has been closed and placed in collections. This typically happens after the bill hasn't been paid for 180 days. It also means the debt has been reported to credit bureaus and can affect someone's credit score.
Southern states especially stand out with the highest concentration of people delinquent. In 13 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and West Virginia — and Washington, D.C., more than 40% of the population with a credit file has debt in collections. Nevada, one of the states hardest hit by the housing crisis and recession, has the highest share, at 46.9%.
The 77 million Americans with debt in collections owe an average of $5,200. That includes debt from credit card bills, child support, medical bills, utility bills, parking tickets or membership fees.
The share of delinquent households is "pretty disheartening," says Josh Bivens, research and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute. He calls the data a "powerful" reminder of the fact that many Americans are still battling for economic stability since the end of the recession.
"This is yet another really bad legacy of the Great Recession that we're just nowhere near climbing all the way out of," he says.
At the same time, a significant number of people with debt in collections aren't aware of the bill and may otherwise have great credit, especially when it comes to medical bills that patients often think were picked up by insurance, says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com.
"The numbers don't necessarily speak to the percentage of households that haven't been paying their obligations," he says of the data.
The research only draws on data from Americans with a credit file, so the researchers say lower-income consumers are underrepresented, and alternative forms of debt such as payday loans aren't included.
When it comes to overall debt levels, most comes from mortgages, which make up 70%, on average, of Americans' debt load. Wealthier states tend to have the highest amount of debt and percentage of debt held in mortgages, but the researchers point out that Americans with higher debt may also have higher incomes and better access to credit.
Hawaii tops the list with an average debt of $83,810; 80% of that is held in mortgages. States along the West and East Coasts follow closely behind. Those areas also have the highest housing prices.
"Total debt really mimics mortgage debt," says Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and one of the authors of the report. Ratcliffe classifies mortgage debt as what's generally considered "productive debt."
"We talk about credit and access to credit as a good thing, but debt as a bad thing," she says. "Access to credit can result in productive debt that moves us forward."
Among Americans with credit history, the average total debt load is nearly $54,000. But that number is significantly skewed once you factor in debt from mortgages. Americans with a mortgage have an average overall debt of about $209,000 compared with about $11,600 for those without a mortgage. Twenty percent of Americans with a credit report have no debt.
McBride cautions that mortgage debt isn't necessarily a negative financial indicator.
"Somebody with $400,000 in mortgage debt and no other debts could be in much better financial shape than the person with no mortgage debt but $10,000 in consumer debt," he says.
The states with the highest share of people with debt in collections are ranked relatively low when it comes to average mortgage debt, the data show. The researchers found mortgage debt is concentrated in high-cost, high-price areas, Ratcliffe says. The top 20% of areas with the highest mortgage debt account for almost half of all mortgage debt