Two-thirds of Americans would have difficulty coming up with the money to cover a $1,000 emergency, according to an exclusive poll released Thursday, a signal that despite years of recovery from the Great Recession, Americans’ financial condition 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, [the more] 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 nonretirement 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 have 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 [of] 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.”
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.