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More Than 1/3 of Americans Are Behind on Their Bills

A July 2014 study by the Urban Institute and debt buyer Encore Capital Group (Midland Funding, Midland Collection Management), “Delinquent Debt in America,” looked at a sample of TransUnion consumer credit reports in September 2013 to determine how many delinquent accounts were noted on the reports and how many collection tradelines could be found. In addition, the study’s authors looked at closed and/or charged off accounts still being reported to determine if they were eligible for collections, even if there was not a specific note of collection on the credit report.

“Collection accounts” for the purpose of this study included direct reports from collectors, accounts that had been charged-off and either sold or outsourced, accounts still being worked in-house after charge-off, and accounts being warehoused by creditors.

The study found that 35.1 percent of the credit reports examined showed collection accounts or accounts qualified for collections. Those results were close to those of a Federal Reserve study from 2004 which showed 36.5 percent of credit reports with an account in collections.

The authors noted that even some 22 million low-income adults do not have credit files and were represented at all in the study, so that the results were understated

The study included every type of debt except mortgage debt. Researchers noted that, “While mortgage debt could result in collections activity, it is very rare.” In addition to traditional financial debt (credit cards, bank loans, etc.), the study found medical debt, utility bills, membership fees, phone bills, and many other kinds of debt being reported as charged-off on credit reports.

Among people with a report of debt in collections, the average amount owed was $5,178, with a median of $1,349.

The study also examined delinquency within the same credit report sample. It showed that 5.3 percent of Americans with a credit file were at least 30 days late on an account. Among people with debt past due, the average amount they need to pay to become current on that debt is $2,258.

The delinquency rate is much lower than the collection rate because typically only financial products are being actively reported to credit bureaus. This means that non-financial accounts comprise the vast majority of accounts in collection.