Median Household Debts Rise as Percentage Owing Shrinks

The percentage of U.S. households in debt shrank over a decade, even while the median amount owed shot to $70,000, the Census Bureau reported today.

Almost three-quarters of American households reported holding some form of debt in 2000. Eleven years later, the share had fallen to 69 percent in the wake of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the first drop in median household debt in more than a decade.

The Census Bureau report underscores the fragile nature of the U.S. economy and household income, which has remained stagnant for a generation.

“Wealth and debt are important bellwethers of household financial security and prospects in the United States,” the Census Bureau wrote in a blog post. Debt, the government said, “is often used by households in times of economic prosperity to finance large purchases -- such as a home or a vehicle -- or to pay for a household member’s education.”

The percentage of American households holding any type of debt peaked in 2002 at 75 percent and has been declining steadily. The total median household debt hit its high of $74,619 in 2010, the Census Bureau said.

Even after the 2008 financial crisis, median secured debt, which includes real estate and auto loans, rose to $91,000 in 2011, a 30.5 percent increase from the median $69,749 amount owed in 2000.

Biggest Borrowers

The largest amounts of secured debt were held by American households led by people between 35 and 44 years old, the Census Bureau said. The typical secured debt for those households in 2011 was $128,500, a 31.2 percent increase from the $97,917 typically owed in 2000.

Americans 35 to 44 years old had the highest percentage of households in debt, with 79.6 percent reporting they owed money to someone. Only 44.4 percent of households led by people older than 65 said they were in debt.

Households led by people younger than 35 owed the most unsecured debt in 2011, with a median $9,700 tab. The bill represented a 57.2 percent increase over the median $6,170 owed in 2000.

Unsecured debt, which includes credit cards and student loans, rose for all U.S. households to $7,000, a 30.5 percent increase from the $5,365 median tab registered in 2000.

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