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The United States of financial insecurity

Most Americans now feel like they're able to pay their day-to-day bills. But they still have that sinking feeling when it comes to their long-term finances.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Most Americans now feel like they're able to pay their day-to-day bills. But they still have that sinking feeling when it comes to their long-term finances.

Five years removed from the financial crisis, most Americans no longer feel they’re drowning in debt. But a new poll shows they still have that sinking feeling when it comes to long-term finances—and they feel Washington is only hurting matters.

Here’s the good news: a whopping 90% believe they are realistically able to pay their day-to-day bills, and 68% believe they can make their mortgage payments, according to a Heartland Monitor poll commissioned by Allstate/National Journal. Despite that gloomy outlook on the economy at large—more than half of respondents believe we’re still in a recession—Americans are also modestly optimistic about their financial future in the near term: 39% believe their personal financial situation will improve over the next year. Only 15% believe it will get worse. 

And there’s lot of evidence to show that Americans are getting better at paying down debt and avoiding delinquency—with the glaring exception of student loans. The average household is now spending about 10.5% of their post-tax income servicing their debt, the lowest level in 30 years, according to Ethan Harris, head of North America economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. 

But Americans are still feeling anxious about their long-term finances, as many don’t have the means to accumulate savings and wealth for the future. Nearly 40% say it’s not realistic for them to invest their money for the future, as they can’t afford to, according to the Heartland Monitor poll.

Only 37% have a employer-backed 401(k), and an even smaller percentage have an IRA or a personal investment account. Many are still afraid to even make the jump: 42% say it’s too risky to rely on personal investments to pay for their retirement—the same number as in March 2009, during the darkest months of the economic meltdown. And just half of Americans have enough savings to last them six months in case of an unexpected job loss or health emergency. 

“They don’t have jobs. And the people who have jobs—the high unemployment is hurting their wage growth,” Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said at a discussion of the poll’s findings. ”They’re spending the money they have right now.”

Such figures help explain the rapidly growing wealth gap between the richest households in the U.S. and everyone else—a divide that’s twice as large as the income gap. “Dow 16,000 is a driving force in runaway wealth inequality,” says Justin King, policy director for the New America Foundation’s asset-building program. “The housing crash is the worst for the middle and lower class, since all their eggs were in that basket, and since wages aren’t going anywhere, there’s no excess capacity for ordinary [people] to put into building up wealth.”

And Americans have little confidence that their representatives in Washington will be able to provide them with greater financial security. More than 60% believe that the federal government’s budget troubles have had a negative impact on their personal financial situation, and nearly three-fourths believe we’ll face another shutdown over the budget in January. ”There is a very negative confidence shock from the brinksmanship moments,” says Harris. “Businesses have learned not to trust the economy and not to trust Washington.”