A growing number of Americans say they are struggling to pay their bills, battered by inflation and the loss of federal pandemic aid.
About 36% of consumers say it has been “somewhat” to “very difficult” for them to pay their usual bills in the last seven days, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse survey, which gathered responses during the first two weeks of February. That represents a 25% increase compared with a year earlier, and is higher than even in the early months of the pandemic, when households were buoyed by expanded unemployment aid and stimulus checks.
The health of the American consumer is key to the U.S. economy, which relies on consumer spending for 70 cents of every $1 in economic activity. Increasingly, however, there are signs that more households are reaching a breaking point, weighed down by grocery prices that have jumped 20% in two years and rents that have surged 13%.
Consumers are cutting back by trading down to cheaper store brands and even buying less food, said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, in a research note citing his company’s survey of about 2,800 Americans.
“[I]nflation is not an enemy that consumers can withstand indefinitely,” he noted.
At the same time, there’s a dichotomy in the economy: The job market remains strong, with employers continuing to hire. Yet while more Americans may have jobs than in the early days of the pandemic, their incomes aren’t keeping up with inflation — eroding their standard of living, experts point out.
“Real earnings have been negative every month since April 2021,” noted Evan Lorenz, deputy editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. “The money they are bringing home each week goes a little less far.”
Some Americans are struggling more than others, with a greater share of hardship reported in many Southern states, the census data shows. Incomes tend to be lower in those regions, with many workers still earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour — an hourly rate that hasn’t budged since 2009.
Mississippi has the greatest share of Americans who are straining to pay their bills — more than half of its residents report difficulty in meeting their typical obligations, the census data shows. Other states with a greater than average share of struggling households include Alabama, Louisiana and West Virginia.
Median household income in Mississippi stands at $46,637, well below the U.S. average of $70,784, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Meanwhile, Minnesota, the state with the smallest share of residents who are experiencing difficulty in paying their bills, has a median household income of $80,441.
The share of Americans who are living paycheck to paycheck is on the rise, according to a study published last month by LendingTree. The analysis found that 61% of consumers were living paycheck to paycheck in December, a seven percentage point rise from May 2021.
“I am overwhelmed”
Not surprisingly, Americans earning less than $25,000 are struggling the most, with about 64% saying they recently experienced difficulties in paying their recent bills, the census report found. And people who receive food stamps, who typically live in low-income households, are reporting a spike in financial distress, according to Stacy Taylor, head of policy and partnerships at Propel, which makes an app for food-stamp recipients to check their balances.
Food-stamp recipients are reporting issues like, “‘My credit cards are maxed out, I’m not finding the work I need, my rent is overdue and I’m hitting the breaking point’,” Taylor said of the company’s February survey of its users.
She added, “We just hear, ‘I am overwhelmed’.”
Even some higher-income Americans say they are running into problems. Almost 1 in 10 people who earn over $200,000 a year said they experienced some or a lot of difficulty in paying the bills, according to the census data.
To be sure, that reflects a far smaller share than lower-income Americans who say they are strapped, but it could indicate that even wealthier households are straining to maintain their standard of living with recent economic trends. New cars, for instance, are 19% more expensive than two years ago, and a record share of Americans are paying monthly auto payments of more than $1,000.
“The cost of living in America — you need a roof over our head and car to get to your job — is rising much faster than your income,” Lorenz said.