Census Bureau: Americans Burdened By High Debt

The Census Bureau is out with a new report on the debt and wealth of Americans. It shows the economic turmoil of the past decade shredded the financial fortunes of many Americans. The report shows debt burdens higher and wealth lower than in the year 2000.

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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.

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