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One-fourth of U.S. families "just getting by"

New data from the Federal Reserve highlight how many Americans continue to struggle financially more than five years after the end of the Great Recession.

As of September 2013, when the central bank conducted the poll, a quarter of families said they were "just getting by," while an additional 13 percent were struggling to make ends meet.

Asked to compare their current financial situation with how they were faring five years ago, as the housing crash was wreaking havoc on the economy, 34 percent of respondents said they were doing "somewhat or much worse" than in 2008. The same percentage reported essentially treading water, while 30 percent said they were doing better.

"Given that respondents were being asked to compare their incomes to 2008, when the United States was in the depths of the financial crisis, the fact that over two-thirds of respondents reported being the same or worse off financially highlights the uneven nature of the recovery," the Federal Reserve said in the report.

The Fed found that more than 60 percent of U.S. families were either "doing OK" or "living comfortably."

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The survey of 4,100 households was conducted between September and October of last year. Since then, economic growth has been inconsistent. The nation's GDP shrank 2.1 percent over the first three months of the year, when harsh winter weather slowed consumer spending and dented the housing sector. But GDP surged to an annualized 4 percent between April and June, while the job market has strengthened in recent months.

Americans' biggest financial concerns centered on three issues, the Fed found: retirement, education and jobs. And even with the economy seemingly on the mend, other findings from the Fed survey highlight the financial challenges many Americans still face.

For instance, a third of households who had applied for credit in the previous 12 months reported being turned down or getting less than they asked for. Meanwhile, 10 percent of households said their income fluctuates significantly from month to month, largely because of an irregular work schedule or because respondents are unemployed.

Wage growth has been soft throughout the recovery, which officially began in June 2009. That has strained household budgets and damped consumer spending, slowing the pace of recovery. Average hourly earnings for all private nonfarm employees was essentially flat last month. Wages are now growing at an annualized rate of only 2 percent, barely keeping earners ahead of inflation this year.

Other key findings from the Fed survey:

  • 31 percent of nonretired respondents said they have no retirement savings or pension.
  • 26 percent of households expected the value of their homes to rise less than 5 percent over the next 12 months.
  • 24 percent reported having some form of education debt as of September 2013, with 18 percent of this group indicating they were behind on payments.
  • Over 50 percent of renters said they had to curb their spending over the prior 12 months in order to pay the rent.
  • 57 percent of respondents with credit cards reported paying off their balances in full each month.
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