By Howard Schneider
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A quarter of U.S. families feel they are under economic stress as the aftershock of the Great Recession continues to drag down living standards and prompt consumers to hold off on major purchases and life decisions, according to a new Federal Reserve report released on Thursday.
The Fed commissioned its first large-scale online survey of household finances last year to try to better understand the forces shaping consumer behavior – the risks families feel they face and their perceptions of how they are doing economically.
More than 60 percent of the 4,100 respondents polled nationally last fall said they were either “doing okay” or “living comfortably,” a solid majority, according to the survey.
But it also uncovered lingering effects of the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The findings may help explain the choppy pace of recovery in areas like consumer spending, as well as the slow rebound in the housing market: 42 percent of respondents reported delaying major purchases because of the recession, and 18 percent delayed “what they considered to be a major life decision.”
The slow pace of new household formation has been one of the factors thought to be behind the slow housing recovery.
On a broader level, a third of the respondents said they were “somewhat worse off or much worse off financially than they had been five years ago,” an indication of the scope of the 2007-2009 economic crisis and recession in the United States.
More than half of those surveyed said they had dipped into their savings as a result of the recession, and more than a third reported “going without some form of medical care” for financial reasons.
The Fed monitors less tangible indicators like consumer confidence to help inform its policy debates. Its Survey of Household Economics and Decision Making was meant to deepen the central bank’s understanding of how households perceived their financial situation.
“Large-scale financial strain at the household level ultimately fed into broader economic challenges for the country, and the completion of the national recovery will ultimately be, in part, a reflection of the well-being of households and consumers,” the Fed wrote in an executive summary of the findings.
“Because households’ finances can change at a rapid pace and new opportunities and risks may emerge, such recovery can be complex to monitor.”
Overall, the Fed concluded there was “overall reason for optimism,” with so many families feeling they are doing okay and large numbers expecting progress in the form of things like rising home prices in the future.
However, “economic challenges remain for a significant portion of the population,” according to the survey, which was designed by Fed staff and conducted by online research firm GfK.
A follow-up survey is planned for this year.
(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)