Most Americans Hanging on By a Financial Thread: Study

Want a stunning figure? Half of Americans now say they are only one month or less away from not being able to meet their financial obligations if they were to lose their job — just two paychecks or less. And of these, more than half — 28 percent of all Americans — say they could not survive financially for more than two weeks without their current job. This disturbing data comes courtesy of the 2009 MetLife Study of the American Dream, released Monday, which looks at how the financial crisis has affected the American Dream and consumer perceptions. It’s all the more disturbing considering that unemployment in the U.S. has already surged to 8.1 percent, with 651,000 jobs lost last month alone. A Bloomberg News survey of economists released Tuesday morning found that economists now expect unemployment levels in the U.S. to reach 9.4 percent this year alone, and remain elevated through at least 2011 — prospects that paint a potentially grim picture for the U.S. economy in general, and for housing in particular. Traditionally, borrower defaults are driven by macro-economic factors such as increased rates of unemployment. The survey data underscores that the mortgage industry would do well to remain focused on economic fundamentals: following a job loss, 59 percent of survey respondents said they’d be somewhat or very concerned about having to file for bankruptcy, and 64 percent would be concerned about losing their home. And evidence of the spending binge most Americans are still recovering from is evident in even the broadest sense, not just limited to those with more limited financial means. Even the “mass affluent” — those making $100,000+ in income per year, according to the MetLife study — haven’t been saving enough, with more than one-quarter (29 percent) saying that they couldn’t meet their financial obligations for more than one month following a job loss. That’s the sort of information that should give every lender, investor and servicer pause as we think about managing a growing number of bad loans. “The American dream is on pause. The majority of Americans still believe they can still achieve the dream in their lifetimes but, for the next year, it’s all about shoring up the foundation of their personal safety nets,” said Beth Hirschhorn, senior vice president for global brand and marketing services at MetLife. “For the one-third of Americans who believe they have already achieved the dream, being able to sustain the dream — without backsliding — is becoming as important as achieving it in the first place.” The MetLife study alludes to some amazingly sharp and fast changes in the attitudes of most Americans — the kind of changes that usually take decades to manifest, instead being forced upon an entire population immediately by a financial crisis that has proven to be unlike any other faced by most. For the first time since MetLife fielded the annual study, there is evidence that consumers are no longer interested in keeping up with the proverbial Jones’. Nearly half (47 percent) of consumers say they already have all the possessions they need, up from 34 percent in November 2006 — and a full three-quarters (74 percent) no longer agree that the pressure to buy more and better material possessions is greater than ever. “Sweeping changes in the economy have led to a reevaluation of priorities for most Americans and a fundamental shift away from materialism,” said Hirschhorn. Write to Paul Jackson at

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