By Tim Mullaney, USA TODAY
More Americans are debt-free than in 2000, but the ones who have
debt owe nearly 40% more, and seniors have the biggest percentage
increase in debt, the Census Bureau said Thursday.
percentage of U.S. households carrying any debt dropped to 69% in 2011
from 74% in 2000, the government reported. But the median debt load rose
to $70,000, from an inflation-adjusted $50,971.
Debt owed by
seniors doubled, to a median of $26,000, according to the Census. A
median figure means that half of households carry more debt while half
government's data said seniors' rising housing debt led the increase in
their overall debt load. But they also are more likely than before the
recession to have unsecured debt or even student loans, often incurred
as they try to help their adult children cope with job loss, divorce or
education costs, said Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, a personal finance expert
who helps devise financial-planning programs for the AARP.
known for five-plus years that seniors are falling into debt, and it's
very troubling,'' Khalfani-Cox said. "Most of us have this idealized
concept of riding into the sunset with a paid-off house. Unfortunately,
that isn't the case.''
The Census Bureau also said that, through
2011, the median household had a 16% lower net worth than in 2000. The
big swings during the decade - moving higher between 2000 and 2006
before big declines - reflected the swings in housing prices, the bureau
The Census data are consistent with figures from the Federal Reserve that show households' net worth rebounding
from the financial crisis, said Alfred Gottschalck, chief of the labor
force statistics branch at the Census Bureau. But differences in how the
two studies are done lead to differences over the magnitude of the
changes, he said.
The Fed said that households had made up all but
$1.3 trillion of the $16 trillion of net worth lost during the
financial crisis and housing bust by Dec. 31. Many economists believe
the rest of the gap has closed due to rising house and stock prices this
The Census said the share of people with debt fell for all
age groups 65 and younger. The biggest increase in debt, measured in
dollars, was for households led by people 35 to 44 years old, who owed a
median of $108,000. About 44% of seniors owed money in 2011, compared
with 41% in 2000.
Significantly fewer Americans hold credit card
debt than early last decade - 38% compared with 51%, the government
said. But the percentage holding other unsecured debt, including student
loans and medical costs not covered by insurance, rose to 19% of
households from 11%.
Unsecured debt other than credit cards is
especially common in households led by people younger than 45, said
Census Bureau economist Marina Vornovytskyy said.