May 23, 2019 / 4:14 PM / 6 months ago

Fed: U.S. households see slight economic improvement over last year

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three quarters of Americans surveyed by the Federal Reserve last year said they were living comfortably or doing OK in 2018, roughly unchanged from the year before but continuing a six-year trend that has reflected the ongoing economic recovery and falling unemployment, the Fed reported on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Board building on Constitution Avenue is pictured in Washington, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis - RC17BAD28DD0/File Photo

“This generally positive assessment of economic well-being is consistent with the continued economic expansion and the low national unemployment rate,” the Fed said, noting the steady upward trend in the survey results since 2013, the first year it was conducted. At that point just 62% of households felt they were OK or living comfortably.

The change over last year, however, was not considered statistically significant, evidence that a round of tax cuts, wage hikes and strong 2018 growth had not registered deeply in household sentiment that may have plateaued.

The central bank’s latest Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking also pointed to some continuing gaps in the recovery.

Around 12% of respondents still said they could not cover an unexpected $400 expense, similar to last year, and 30% reported they were “either unable to pay their bills or are one modest financial setback away from hardship.”

That was a decline from 33% in the year before, but still evidence of financial fragility.

In addition, “another year of economic expansion and the low national unemployment rates did little to narrow the persistent economic disparities by race, education, and geography,” the Fed reported.

Among those without a high school degree, around 68% of whites still reported doing at least OK, compared to 61% of blacks and 58% of Hispanics. For each race, the number was about 20 percentage points higher among those with a college degree, with nearly 90% of college-educated whites saying they were financially alright.

The online survey, covering 11,440 adults in October and November and weighted to be nationally representative, captured the mood of households across a broad set of issues as the U.S. economic recovery approached the decade mark.

Its 19 sections included questions not just about income and employment but neighborhood satisfaction and the prevalence of gig work. The survey found 30% of respondents had done some sort of temporary work over the year - including things like dog walking alongside tasks like driving for a ridesharing company - and were slightly more likely to have trouble meeting emergency expenses.

Surprisingly, at a time when housing costs in “superstar” cities like San Francisco have become a focus of discussion, the survey found that even those with lower incomes for those cities reported being more satisfied with their housing and neighborhoods than those in less-expensive places.

“Adults with relatively low income for their city are slightly more satisfied with their housing and neighborhoods in more expensive cities,” the Fed concluded, a finding that may counter theories that high housing costs are dissuading people from moving to those places.

Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci

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