Over 40% of Consumers in Some States Have Delinquent Household Debt, Data Indicate

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Financial stress from debt has subsided somewhat since the Great Recession, but remains high in some places. New data provides insight into how it looks at the state and county level.

Nearly one-third of American consumers have delinquent debt and in some states and counties the share of people with overdue bills is even higher, according to estimates a think tank released on Tuesday that are based on information pulled from millions of credit records.

Nationwide, 31% of people with credit bureau records had debt in collections last year, according to the 2018 figures, which were published by the Urban Institute. The median amount of that debt was $1,639. “The share of consumers with financial distress, despite the fact it's going down since the Great Recession, is still quite high,” said Breno Braga, a researcher who worked on the project.

Braga noted that 16% of consumers last year had medical debt in collections based on the analysis. “It's going down, but not going down fast enough,” he added, referring to the level overdue medical debt.

The ratios noted in the report are based on the share of consumers with a credit record who have delinquent debt, as opposed to the share of every person in a state.

Louisiana was the state with the greatest proportion of that group with any type of debt in collections, at 44%. In South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia this statistic was 42%. At the other end of the spectrum, in Minnesota, it was just 16%, while in South Dakota it was only 17%.

Counties where these levels were the highest included Duval County and Deaf Smith County in Texas, where the share of people with debt in collections was 65% and 63% respectively.

This is the third version of the “Debt in America” project that the Urban Institute has compiled in recent years, according to Braga. He said that this year, as with past studies, states with the greatest levels of consumer financial distress tend to be concentrated in the south.

The project includes statistics at the state and county level for overall delinquent debt of any type, as well as medical bills in collections, and past due student and auto loan payments and credit card debt. The data is available for download and in an online map format.  

Differences in the share of debt among mostly white and predominantly minority communities are also presented. Here the researchers define communities of color as ZIP codes where at least 60 percent of the population is made up of residents who are not white.

Looking at the data through this lens shows that communities of color had a higher share of people with any type of debt in collections (42%), compared to mostly white communities (26%). 

The median overdue debt amounts for both categories of communities was around $1,600. But the average household income in the communities of color was about $21,300 less. 

Similar disparities that correspond to race can be found when zooming in on different types of debt and individual states.

For instance, the share of student loan holders with their loan debt in default nationally was 17% among the communities of color and 11% for the white communities. 

A closer look at Mississippi reveals that the share of people with any type of debt in collections was 51% for minority communities, compared to 33% for mostly white ZIP codes. 

In Louisiana there’s a similar dynamic. The figure for minority communities there is 58%, whereas for white communities it is 38%.

Braga said that for state and local public officials considering the information that the project provides, and how it relates to public policy, it’s worth bearing in mind that places with lower incomes and less access to health insurance tend to have more problems with debt.

Something else he noted is that greater financial literacy is also correlated with people being more apt to pay their bills on time. “Any policies that can promote financial knowledge I think would be something interesting to think about,” he said.

The data the researchers at the Urban Institute present is derived from a random sample of more than five million anonymous, consumer-level records from a major credit bureau. 

Braga said further updates of the project would likely include more detail about trends in each state over time.

The latest data can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter at Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington. 

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