Poll: Two-thirds of US would struggle to cover $1,000 crisis
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 conditions remain precarious as ever.
Several York County residents said they have saved enough to cover such an expense.
Brain Ganoe, a North York resident who said a majority of his income comes from disability compensation, said he could cover a $1,000 emergency cost, but only because he's been very vigilant keeping track of his spending.
"I've seen how I've been through so many accidents and problems, medically, so I know how important it is to have that money saved," Ganoe said, "but it's not easy."
Dusty Bandow, a stay-at-home mom in West Manchester Township, said her four-person family could afford a $1,000 crisis, but "not many times over."
Doyle Morthland, a salesman living in Red Lion, said he's got enough saved to cover any emergency costing less than $5,000.
"I save what I can, always have a good cushion," Morthland said. "The goal is to always have six months of cushion in case you lose your job or something."
Ganoe said people just need to watch what they spend on "dumb, little things."
"Like spending $20 a day at Sheetz on cigarettes and candy, a lot of young people don't see that and wonder where all their money went," he said.
Emergency fund: Having a modest, immediately available emergency fund is widely recognized as critical to financial health. Families that have even a small amount of non-retirement 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,” said Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute focusing on poverty and emergency savings issues. “And it’s a cost to taxpayers as well. Lack of savings can lead to homelessness or other problems.”
Missy Nahum, a former retail worker living in York City, said she's currently broke and could only afford an emergency cost of a "couple hundred dollars."
"Most jobs these days wouldn't allow you to cover that much," Nahum said in response to the $1,000 question. "With basic living essentials like rent and food, there's just no way with most (jobs)."
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, it becomes quite alarming,” Ratcliffe said.
Feel positive: 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 comes 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.
Nahum, Ganoe and Morthland all said they'd turn to friends or family if an emergency cost arose that surpassed their current savings.
Not new: 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.
Politics: The findings in the AP-NORC poll illuminate how many Americans’ frustrations over the economy, income inequality and insecurity about their financial futures has 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.
Recession: 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 to 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.”
Mitchell Timme, 26, said that his wages have remained basically flat for the last few years while his cost of living has increased. Once everything is paid “there’s nothing left to save,” he said.
“It definitely adds stress to everyday life. It hangs over you. While it’s not something you would complain about every day, it’s there. And it weighs on you,” Timme said, who works at a security company in Phoenix.
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.
— The AP-NORC poll of 1,008 adults was conducted April 14-18 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
— Staff reporter David Weissman contributed to this article.