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Two-thirds of U.S. would struggle to cover $1,000 emergency

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Mitchell Timme worked from his laptop computer at his home in Phoenix on Wednesday. Two-thirds of Americans would have difficulty coming up with the money to cover a $1,000 emergency, according to an exclusive poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Timme said that his wages have remained basically flat for the last few years while his cost of living has increased.

NEW YORK » Two-thirds of Americans would have difficulty coming up with the money to cover a $1,000 emergency, according to an exclusive poll released today, a signal that despite years of recovery from the Great Recession, Americans’ financial conditions remains precarious as ever.

These financial difficulties span all income levels, according to the poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Seventy-five percent of people in households making less than $50,000 a year would have difficulty coming up with $1,000 to cover an unexpected bill. But when income rose to between $50,000 and $100,000, the difficulty decreased only modestly to 67 percent.

Even for the country’s wealthiest 20 percent — households making more than $100,000 a year — 38 percent say they would have at least some difficulty coming up with $1,000.

“The more we learn about the balance sheets of Americans, it becomes quite alarming,” said Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute focusing on poverty and emergency savings issues.

Harry Spangle is one of those Americans. A 66-year-old former electrician from New Jersey, Spangle said he thought he would always have a job and “lived for today” but lost his job before the downturn. He said he would have to borrow from friends or family in order to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense.

“I have a pension and I am on Social Security, but it’s very limiting,” he said. “It’s depressing.”

Having a modest, immediately available emergency fund is widely recognized as critical to financial health. Families that have even a small amount of non-retirement savings, between $250 and $749, are less likely to be evicted from their homes and less likely to need public benefits, an Urban Institute study found.

“People are extremely vulnerable if they don’t have savings,” Ratcliffe said. “And it’s a cost to taxpayers as well. Lack of savings can lead to homelessness, or other problems.”

Despite an absence of savings, two-thirds of Americans said they feel positive about their finances , according to survey data released Wednesday by AP-NORC, a sign that they’re managing day-to-day expenses fine. The challenge for many often come from economic forces beyond their control such as a dip in the stock market that threatens their job or an unexpected medical bill, risks that have shattered the confidence of most in the broader U.S. economy.

Yet when faced with an unexpected $1,000 bill, a majority of Americans said they wouldn’t be especially likely to pay with money on hand, the AP-NORC survey found. A third said they would have to borrow from a bank or from friends and family, or put the bill on a credit card. Thirteen percent would skip paying other bills, and 11 percent said they would likely not pay the bill at all.

Those numbers suggest that most American families do not have at least $1,000 stashed away in an accessible savings account, much less under their mattresses, to cover an emergency.

Americans’ struggle to save isn’t new. Three CBS News and The New York Times polls going back to the mid-1990s — the most recent one done in 2007 before the downturn — show a majority of Americans would have some difficulty covering a $1,000 emergency. The AP-NORC results also correlate with a 2015 study by the Federal Reserve in which 47 percent of respondents said they either could not cover a $400 emergency expense or would have to sell something or borrow money.

And the struggle impacts retirement savings as well. When AP-NORC asked if they will have enough savings to retire when they want to, 54 percent of working Americans say they are not very or not at all confident they will have enough. Only 14 percent say they are confident they can retire on time.

The findings in the AP-NORC poll illuminate how many Americans’ frustrations over the economy, income inequality and insecurity about their financial futures has contributed to this dizzying presidential election season.

Billionaire businessman Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party largely on a populist platform of kicking out undocumented immigrants, renegotiating free trade agreements and a promise to “Make America Great Again.” On the left, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont captured voters with a message of dismantling Wall Street and higher taxes on the rich.

The reasons why Americans don’t save are complex. One economist says it’s a holdover from the ’70s and ’80s, when high inflation ate into the value of money stashed in a savings account. Others say U.S. tax policy rewards saving money for retirement or taking out a mortgage to buy a home over short-term emergencies.

The Great Recession and lack of wage growth in recent years have not helped. In the same AP-NORC poll, 46 percent of workers said their wages have remained stagnant in the last five years, and another 16 percent said they’ve actually seen salary cuts. Meanwhile, costs for basic needs, such as food, housing and health care, have risen.

“The lack of (savings) is symptomatic to other financial problems that families are having,” said William R. Emmons, a senior economic adviser at the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Many families are still struggling with debt from the housing bubble and borrowing boom. And the recent economic stresses make it much more likely families are going to be fighting basic financial issues.”

Mitchell Timme, 26, said that his wages have remained basically flat for the last few years while his cost of living has increased. Once everything is paid “there’s nothing left to save,” he said.

“It definitely adds stress to everyday life. It hangs over you. While it’s not something you would complain about every day, it’s there. And it weighs on you,” Timme said, who works at a security company in Phoenix.

It may not be entirely bad that some Americans do not have much cash savings, Emmons said. In the poll, 21 percent of Americans say they would strongly consider the option of putting the unexpected $1,000 bill on a credit card to be paid in full when their statement came due.

“For financially stronger families, having access to low-cost credit is completely acceptable,” he said.

The AP-NORC poll of 1,008 adults was conducted April 14-18 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods, and later interviewed online or by phone.

The AP-NORC Center: http://www.apnorc.org/

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  • Welfare and food stamps should not be a part of anyone’s retirement plan. Start saving now.

    Cut out your daily star bucks coffee or whatever you can to save some money for retirement. You won’t regret it.

    • I would have trouble with a 200 dollar emergency! It is real life people. Most of us are one pay check away from the streets. Think you are so much better? Wait and see….the streets await you.

  • “Seventy-five percent of people in households making less than $50,000 a year would have difficulty coming up with $1,000 to cover an unexpected bill. But when income rose to between $50,000 and $100,000, the difficulty decreased only modestly to 67 percent.”

    Uh really?

    • While I agree with you…the article only says, household, therefore we don’t know the total average household sizes. Let’s say the $50k/year was more heavily weighted to 2 person, and the $100k, 4 person…given that, the percentages wouldn’t change much.

  • I find it unbelievable that 2/3 of Americans don’t have at least $1,000 in a bank account. What is wrong with people? And, why does a guy who says he would have a difficult time coming up with $1,000 for an emergency own an Apple laptop?

  • Two-thirds of U.S. would struggle to cover $1,000 emergency…yet have no problem owning the latest tech gadgets, fancy cars, eating out, going to Starbucks, buying clothes weekly,traveling etc. Time for these people who are having financial difficulties to listen to Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman.

    • Conspicuous consumption, buy now pay later, and installment buying stopped for us back in 1955. That is the last time we purchased an automobile on contract. Everything else was purchased by cash except for our first 2 homes, since then autos, furniture any appliances have been by cash. Even the last 2 homes. It’s all about money management. If you don’t have the money you don’t need it. Have owned the all the major American made cars except the Cadillacs. Have owned Hondas, Toyotas, Lexus and currently drive a MB.

  • The question is how they are defining “difficult”. Some people find it “difficult” to get out of bed in the morning. Some people find it “difficult” to wrap a birthday present. Using such a vague description renders the entire poll meaningless.

  • not difficult to buy a laptop, work out of your parent’s garage, have the latest smart phone, fitbit, smoothies, starbucks, drinks at the hottest night clubs, on line streaming, body tats, piercings, or have thousands of friends following on twit/face/insta.

    just difficult to handle a $1K emergency.

    priorities.

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