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Census Bureau: Americans Burdened By High Debt

Mar 22, 2013
Originally published on March 22, 2013 8:55 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NPR's business news starts with high debt and low wealth.

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INSKEEP: Since the financial crisis, many Americans have been saving more money and paying down debt. Many are in better financial shape than a few years ago. But when you look at the longer term, it is clear that Americans, as a whole, have not regained all the ground they lost. The Census Bureau compared Americans in 2011 with their wealth and debt burdens in that seemingly long-ago year, 2000. NPR's John Ydstie reports.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: The Census Bureau numbers put the median household wealth of Americans at almost $82,000 in the year 2000. That number rose to over $106,000 in 2005, as the housing bubble was peaking. Then, it plunged to just under $69,000 in 2011, as home prices plummeted and wealth drained away.

CHRIS CHRISTOPHER: It's really a housing story.

YDSTIE: That's Chris Christopher, director of Consumer Economics at IHS Global Insight.

CHRISTOPHER: You know, that's what's sort of driving a lot of this, on the wealth side. And then on the debt side, it's the student loans that - has come out of nowhere and is sort of changing the game.

YDSTIE: The Census Bureau data show Americans under 35 had the biggest rise in unsecured debt - debt not backed by a home or car. Much of it is student loans. Christopher says the average student loan balance now is about $25,000, and it will be a burden that follows the current generation of students and recent graduates.

CHRISTOPHER: You can't walk away from the student loan thing. It is going to be a problem in the upcoming years.

YDSTIE: The elderly also fared poorly in the past decade, seeing their median debt more than double from $12,000 to $26,000.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.