Consumer Reports Index: Americans' Financial Health Is a Tad Better

Consumer Confidence
Consumer Confidence

The American consumer's financial health is showing signs of improvement, but the weak job market continues to derail the nation's economic recovery -- particularly for people in the lower income brackets, according to September'sConsumer Reports Index, released on Tuesday.

The index is an overall measure of consumers' financial health that's conducted monthly by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. It reflects interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,036 adult Americans.

Although the country is not hemorrhaging jobs the way it did during the depths of the Great Recession, "The issue now is the anemic job creation -- we're just not creating enough jobs to get folks back to work," nor to employ those entering the workforce for the first time, Ed Farrell, director of the Consumer Reports National Research Center, tells DailyFinance.

What's more, the nation is still shedding more jobs than it's creating, he says.

The index is made up of five indices that measure consumers' financial stability, state of mind on their personal economy and spending inclinations.

• The Sentiment Index, which indicates the percentage of people saying they are financially better off today than they were a year ago, rose to 48.8 from 43.4 in August.

But "while they feel better than they did last year, [the number] is still not in positive territory," Farrell says. Overall, "most people surveyed feel worse off about their economic condition than better off."

Respondents reporting the most optimistic outlook were in the 18- to 34-year-old range, as well as those with household incomes of $100,000 or more. The most pessimistic groups included those 65 and older, as well as people with household incomes under $50,000.

• The Trouble Tracker Index, which gauges the scope and depth of financial difficulties among U.S., households, fell 15.3 points from last month to 45.3, which marks a drop in financial troubles, such as an inability to pay for health care, missed mortgage payments, and falling behind on other bills.

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But while the index suggests some economic relief, once again, lower income households bore the brunt of the financial woes. For example, 22% of people earning less than $50,000 a year could not afford to pay their medical bills or buy all their medications.

• The Employment Index tracks changes employment by comparing the of people who started new jobs versus those who lost theirs during the past 30 days. That number barely budged, inching up to 49.4 from 49.0 a month ago.

In the report, 3.8% of consumers said they started a new job in the past month, while 4.9% lost their job during the same time frame. Households earning less than $50,000 had three times more job losses in the past 30 days than those that earned more than $100,000.

• The Retail Index, which tracks recent and planned spending, shows that consumers have curtailed their shopping -- and will continue to do so -- for large and small home appliances, major home electronics, personal electronics, and major yard and garden equipment.

The Past 30-Day Retail Index, reflecting August shopping activity, dropped to 10.0 from 12.0 in the prior month, while the Next 30-Day Retail Index, which looks ahead to planned purchases, dropped to 8.4 from 9.3 the prior month.

"Discretionary spending is tight," even among the employed, who have been spooked by the bleak job picture, Farrell says.

• The Stress Index, which measures consumers' stress levels compared to a year ago, showed that stress levels among those polled dipped to 60.2 from 63.6 in August, when the index rose its steepest level in 16 months.

However, the numbers still indicate a stressed out consumer mindset. When the Stress Index is above 50, consumers are feeling more stressed than not, Farrell says.