Published: October 2006

Household debt in America

During a one-day conference on July 19, the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, presented a number of interesting panels on debt. At the event, The Debt Survey: Public Recognizes Debt as a Fast Growing Problem in U.S., was introduced.

“In America it is patriotic to help the weak and vulnerable, to stand up for those in need.” That message was delivered by North Carolina democratic Gov. Mike Easley on July 19 during the Debt Matters conference hosted by the Center for American Progress. Heavy debt disrupts core American values, such as economic growth and access to education. “We know the correlation between wealth and education is indisputable,” Easley said. But “it is difficult to build talent, knowledge, and skill when our people are swimming in a sea of debt.”

A new survey, co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies, showed that Americans think debt is a problem but don’t necessarily think of it as a political issue. “We’re looking at some very serious numbers,” said Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Eight in 10 Americans, from across the ideological spectrum, believe the debt problem is getting worse.

Click here to download the full Debt Survey: Public Recognizes Debt as a Fast Growing Problem in U.S.

Debt is seen as a very personal problem, which is partly why it has not become much of a political issue. Bill McInturff, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, said “we want to help people in need, but we want to see people helping themselves.” Even still, the survey showed broad public support for better consumer protections and government education programs. McInturff, citing results that cut across party affiliation, believes that the right political leader can turn debt into an important issue. “There’s something we can do,” he said. “Our political system could address it,” but people aren’t aware of that.

Gov. Easley was the keynote speaker of a day-long event featuring numerous experts and panel discussions. The event, designed to raise the profile of household debt as a national political issue, was highlighted by the release of a new public opinion report on the problem of debt.

John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center, opened the conference by pointing to record levels of debt, a negative savings rate, and the far-reaching implications of a heavily indebted society. Americans, he said, need “a fair shot at a financial future,” a shot they are not currently getting.

Those sentiments were supported by Easley. “Debt,” he said, “is a symptom of a larger problem.” Individuals and families are carrying a greater financial burden, forcing people to borrow increasingly larger amounts of money to pay for important fundamental services, such as education and health care. “Today, the middle class is getting deeper and deeper into debt,” Easley said, “not because they’re over-consuming, but just because they’re trying to maintain their standard of living.”

As a result, the American dream of social mobility is harder to achieve. “The foundation is now getting kicked out,” Easley said, because people have to go deeply into debt just to maintain their current position. That has serious implications for the entire nation. Our large debt burden, the governor said, is preventing America from reaching its economic potential. “This is not just about economic prosperity, but about economic security… we need an extraordinarily efficient economy,” he said, to meet today’s global challenges.

Other experts throughout the day looked more specifically at a poorly understood but important issue. The hope is that through events, such as today’s conference, growing debt will not just be a social problem, but be a problem with solutions. “People need to know,” said Easley, “that if they work hard and play by the rules, they’ll have a chance to succeed.”

For More Information

To see streaming video of the event and to access other reports and data presented at the event, click here.

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