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Many U.S. families report feeling strapped

Roughly half of all American families who define themselves as middle class say they are just getting by, struggling financially or feel poor, according to a new study by Allianz. The financial firm, which polled more than 4,500 households with annual incomes of at least $50,000, also found that more than 40 percent of respondents report living paycheck-to-paycheck.

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"The economy is picking up, but it doesn't seem to be trickling down to American families," said Katie Libbe, vice president of consumer insights with Allianz Life, a unit of the company that offers retirement products and services.

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If the sluggish economy is chiefly responsible for that hardship, how families are structured also appears to affect their relationship to money and finances. Less than a fifth of U.S. households today consist of married, heterosexual couples with kids, down from roughly 40 percent in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while non-traditional family arrangements are increasingly the norm.

Allianz identified seven distinct family types, including traditional households (defined as those in which a person is married to someone of the opposite sex with at least one child under 21 living at home).

Three kinds of families are experiencing the greatest financial distress, according to Allianz: households with three or more generations living in the same household; so-called blended families, in which parents are married or living together and who have a child or stepchild from a previous relationship; and parents with at least one child age 21 or older who has returned home.

The link? The addition of family members -- whether to, say, take in older relatives who can't afford to live on their own or to pay for a step-child's college tuition -- can be financially disruptive.

Not all "modern" families, as Allianz calls such households to distinguish them from traditional families, are hard up, of course. Libbe notes that same-sex couples and older parents with children tend to be in better shape financially. Overall, however, only 30 percent of modern families reported a high level of financial security, compared with 41 percent of traditional families.

Other findings from the study:

  • 36 percent of modern families have collected unemployment benefits, versus 21 percent of traditional households
  • 35 percent of modern families have unexpectedly lost a main source of income, compared with 23 percent of traditional households
  • 22 percent of modern families and 11 percent of traditional households have declared bankruptcy
  • 25 percent of modern families and 20 percent of traditional ones aren't saving any money

As such statistics make clear, families of all stripes are still feeling the effects of Great Recession, which officially ended nearly five years ago. A recent analysis by the New York Times found that the U.S. recently lost its claim to having the richest middle class, with per capita income essentially flat since 2000.

"The middle class used to be associated with a feeling of financial security, but that doesn't seem to be the case today if about 50 percent of American families say they're struggling," Libbe said.

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