Dealing with collectors

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More than 35 percent of Americans with a credit history have debts and unpaid bills that have been reported to collection agencies, says a study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute.

These consumers fall behind on credit cards or hospital bills. Their mortgages, auto loans or student debt pile up. Even past-due gym membership fees or cellphone contracts can end up with a collection agency, potentially hurting credit scores and job prospects, said Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank.

"Roughly, every third person you pass on the street is going to have debt in collections," Ratcliffe said. "It can tip employers' hiring decisions, or whether or not you get that apartment."

The study found that 35.1 percent of people with credit records had been reported to collections for debt that averaged $5,178, based on September 2013 records. The study points to a disturbing trend: The share of Americans in collections has remained relatively constant, even as the country as a whole has whittled down the size of its credit-card debt since the official end of the Great Recession in the middle of 2009.

The delinquent debt is overwhelmingly concentrated in Southern and Western states. Southern cities have a disproportionate number of people facing debt collectors, including Columbia and Charleston; Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Jackson, Miss.

In South Carolina, consumers make less money on average compared with North Carolina, Georgia and the U.S. But they borrow more in nonmortgage loans and have a harder time paying it back, according to McClatchy Newspapers. Of the state's major cities, Columbia fares the worst, with nearly half of all consumers with a credit file having debt in collection status, McClatchy says. The average amount owed on bills in collection in South Carolina is $5,606; in Columbia, $6,416; and in Charleston, $5,053, the study reports.

Education is key

Dorothea Bernique, founder of the Charleston nonprofit Increasing H.O.P.E Financial Training Center, said she sees a great deal of local residents who struggle with delinquent debt on a regular basis.

"The cause of it many times comes from a lack of budgeting about how you're going to spend your money and how many obligations you can successfully handle," Bernique said.

She added that lack of education about financial resources is a major contributing factor to the problem.

"Young people make financial mistakes in their early life, and they are faced with the repercussions for years to come," she said. "If we start having financial planning courses on the high school level, then that's a great start."

David Geer, executive director of the Lowcountry's Family Services Inc., agreed.

"The only solution to it is education and living on a budget," he said.

Reshaping economy

The study says Texas cities have a large share of their populations being reported to collection agencies.

And almost half of Las Vegas residents- many of whom bore the brunt of the housing bust that sparked the recession- have debt in collections.

As a share of people's income, credit-card debt has reached its lowest level in more than a decade, according to the American Bankers Association. People increasingly pay off balances each month. Just 2.44 percent of card accounts are overdue by 30 days or more, versus the 15-year average of 3.82 percent.

Yet roughly the same percentage of people are still getting reported for unpaid bills, according to the Urban Institute study performed in conjunction with researchers from the Consumer Credit Research Institute. Their figures nearly match the 36.5 percent of people in collections reported by a 2004 Federal Reserve analysis.

All of this has reshaped the economy. The collections industry employs 140,000 workers who recover $50 billion each year, according to a separate study published this year by the Federal Reserve's Philadelphia bank branch.

Some cities have populations that have largely managed to repay their bills on time. Just 20.1 percent of Minneapolis residents have debts in collection. Boston, Honolulu and San Jose, Calif., are similarly low.

Only about 20 percent of Americans with credit records have any debt at all. Yet high debt levels don't always lead to more delinquencies, since the debt largely comes from mortgages.

An average San Jose resident has $97,150 in total debt, with 84 percent of it tied to a mortgage. But because incomes and real estate values are higher in the technology hub, those residents are less likely to be delinquent.

By contrast, the average person in the Texas city of McAllen has only $23,546 in debt, yet more than half of the population has debt in collections, more than anywhere else in the United States.

The Urban Institute's Ratcliffe said that stagnant incomes are key to why some parts of the country are struggling to repay their debt.

Wages have barely kept up with inflation during the five-year recovery, according to Labor Department figures.

Post and Courier reporter Abigail Darlington contributed to this report.