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Here's why Americans are so unhappy with the economy, in 3 charts

Inflation up more than expected in December
Inflation up more than expected in December 03:30

Americans remain gloomy about the U.S. economy, even as GDP continues to expand and unemployment is at a five-decade low. The disconnect is spurring some policy experts and economists to examine the root causes of the gap and to look beyond the nation's still-elevated inflation. 

By many measures, the U.S. consumer remains in good shape. Most people who want a job have one, while wages are finally outpacing inflation. In 2023, the stock market rebounded from a brutal bear market in the prior year, bolstering the retirement and investment accounts of millions of Americans.

One recent analysis from the Treasury found that Americans in 2023 could not only afford the same goods and services they did in 2019, they have an extra $1,000 on hand to save or spend, because median earnings have increased faster than prices. Yet if you ask Americans about the economy, most give it poor ratings. About 6 in 10 people polled by CBS News said they rated the economy as "fairly bad" or "very bad." 

"There are three plausible explanations — the first is self-evident, that people truly find the current economy unsatisfactory," said Ben Harris, director of the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution, on a Wednesday webcast to discuss the issue. "This could be due to unhappiness with the level of prices, or dissatisfaction with longstanding structural issues like economic inequality and housing affordability."

Another explanation, he added, could be so-called "referred pain," the idea that Americans are unhappy about other issues, such as gun violence or social isolation, which then tarnishes their view of the economy. Lastly, Harris said there's evidence that polarized new sources and negative economic coverage could be to blame. 

Even so, there are cracks emerging that point to increasing economic stress among a portion of U.S. households, even as the economy, by most measures, remains strong. Here are three charts that explore some of these issues.

Financial distress, for some, is at Great Recession levels

Millions of U.S. households were flush with cash during the pandemic, thanks to stimulus checks, fatter unemployment checks and the expanded Child Tax Credit. 

But with those pandemic payouts long gone, some consumers are experiencing more financial stress. Americans are still paying more for household basics, such as groceries, which are 25% higher than prior to the pandemic, with more turning to credit cards to cope.

Given the higher spend on essentials, it's no surprise that credit card debt is creeping higher, while 49% of Americans are carrying balances from month to month, 10 percentage points higher than in 2021.

As a result, the share of Americans who are in financial distress due to credit cards has reached the same level as during the Great Recession, according to a new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The bank considers a consumer in financial distress if they have an account that is 30 days or more past due.

To be sure, the current share of consumers in credit card distress is small, at less than 4% of consumers. But the increase from 2019 indicates that more households are struggling to stay afloat after two years of elevated inflation and rising interest rates.

More people are struggling to pay their bills

Even though the economy is expanding and wages are growing, millions more Americans say they are struggling to keep current with their bills. 

The number of consumers who said it was "very difficult" for them to pay their household bills during the last week has jumped from 26.9 million in October 2021, when the pandemic was in full swing, to 43.2 million in October 2023, the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Housing is at unaffordable levels

Even once affordable cities are now priced out of many first-time buyers' budgets. The combination of rising home prices and higher interest rates, with the latter due to the Federal Reserve's flurry of rate hikes, means that buyers in half of big cities in the U.S. need incomes of at least $100,000 to buy a home. 

Indeed, a report last fall from real estate data provider ATTOM finds that home prices in 99% of 575 U.S. counties are unaffordable for the average income earner, who makes about $71,000 a year.

"Many consumers are still very upset that they can't buy the houses that they want, because even though mortgage rates are not 8% anymore, it's still a lot more than what we've seen over the last few years," noted Dana Peterson, the chief economist of The Conference Board, on the Brookings' webcast.

That can make consumers feel stuck, especially younger Americans who feel they are missing out on life milestones like purchasing a home. 

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