October 15, 2013
U.S. Families: Not Poor But Feeling Poor
New research shows the share of Americans who lack enough ready cash on hand for emergencies shot up in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
These families do not have access to the liquid assets – cash or funds in their checking or savings account – to cover emergencies like layoffs, health crises, or even car repairs, according to an analysis of federal data by Caroline Ratcliffe of the Urban Institute, who presented the finding to the Congressional Savings and Ownership Caucus in late September.
Ratcliffe’s measure of financial fragility was families who did not have enough liquid assets to subsist at federal poverty levels for three months. That amounts to $2,873 for a single person, $4,883 for a family of three, and $5,888 for a family of four.
By this measure, 37 percent of families in the middle income group – earning $35,600 to $57,900 a year – in 2010 were financially fragile – up sharply from 28 percent in 2007, a year before the Great Recession began. No income group was spared by the downturn: in most cases, the share of families at risk increased between 9 percentage points and 13 percentage points.
Ratcliffe said that financial problems can cascade if cash-poor families resort to high-cost loans or credit cards to pay their bills, and building wealth becomes extremely difficult.
“A shortage of liquid assets can lead to cycles of debt when financial emergencies arise,” creating “further financial instability,” she said.