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Associated Press
The nation’s aggregate credit card balance rises with a Visa purchase in Times Square. Though credit card debt is down, a third of Americans remain on debt collectors’ lists.

1 in 3 Americans in trouble with debt collectors

Figure firm, though nation's credit card balance has fallen

More than 35 percent of Americans have debts and unpaid bills that have been reported to collection agencies, according to 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, unpaid. 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, D.C. think tank.

“Roughly, every third person you pass on the street is going to have debt in collections,” she 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 records.

That figure 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 recession in the middle of 2009.

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.

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

Health care-related bills account for 37.9 percent of the debts collected, according to a new report commissioned by the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals. Student loan debt represents another 25.2 percent, and credit cards make up 10.1 percent, with the rest of the collections going for local governments, retailers, telecoms and utilities.

The delinquent debt is concentrated in Southern and Western states. Almost half of Las Vegas residents – many of whom bore the brunt of the housing bust that sparked the recession – have debt in collections.

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