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How are Americans doing financially?

Apr 11, 2018 Walt Wojciechowski

How are Americans doing financially?

Whether banked, unbanked or underbanked, the ideal borrower is one who makes payments on time and is in a position to do so by virtue of his or her financial situation. And based on a wealth of data, Americans are better off today than they have been in several years.

"The U.S. has been at full employment for over two years."

The examples are legion, but the evidence has been particularly apparent in terms of gainful employment. According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment picture in the U.S. as a whole has been at or below 5 percent for 25 consecutive months, staying steady at 4.1 percent since October 2017. Generally speaking, any jobless rate 5 percent or lower is considered full employment. In a recent poll of economists conducted by The Wall Street Journal, only 9 percent of economists said the U.S. hadn't yet achieved this status.

Not only are more people working again, they're making more in terms of earning. In February - the most recent month for which data is available - personal income levels rose more than $67 billion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, an arm of the Department of Commerce. An uptick of 0.4 percent from January, discretionary income also experienced growth, totaling $53.9 billion.

Higher pay in low unemployment cities
While a half-percent increase may not seem altogether significant, the degree to which salaries have risen is a bit more noticeable in cities where unemployment is lowest. This is rather notable, given wage growth has been stuck in neutral for more than 15 years and low unemployment isn't necessarily a forerunner of wages rising - or at least that hasn't been the case in recent years.

For instance, in Minneapolis - one of the major metropolitan areas with the lowest amount of people out of work, at 2.3 percent - employees in the private sector made 4 percent more money in the second quarter of 2017 than they did in the corresponding three-month period in 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported, based on Labor Department data. The same is true in other MSAs, such as Fort Myers, Florida, Des Moines, Iowa and Ogden, Utah.

Consumer confidence highest since 2000
What the hard data suggests and how consumers feel, on the other hand, don't always align. In other words, people may be on the job and earning a living, but may at the same time not feel like their jobs are secure. That doesn't appear to be the case this time around, though, as consumer confidence levels are at near 20-year highs. Indeed, in February, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index reached 130 in February, its loftiest perch since 2000. In March, the index slipped slightly. However, as noted by the Conference Board's Lynn Franco, the measure "remains historically high and suggests further strong growth in the months ahead."

"63% believe they can do well with hard work."

Speaking of "ahead," a recent Gallup survey found the vast majority of Americans believe the current economy affords them the opportunity to get ahead in terms of upward mobility. Nearly two-thirds - 63 percent - supported the notion that hard work, in today's fiscal climate, was enough to fuel their success. That's up from 54 percent in 2014.

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