WASHINGTON — Four in 10 U.S. households are straining financially five years after the Great Recession, many struggling with tight credit, soaring education debt and profound issues related to savings and retirement, a Federal Reserve survey says.
The wide-ranging study assessing the economic well-being of Americans shows that the economy has made progress to the point where most households said they were "living comfortably" or doing okay financially.
But almost 40 percent reported that their families were "just getting by" or struggling to do so, and more people said their financial situation was worse rather than better off compared with five years earlier.
The survey, conducted in September and reported Thursday, found that the recession forced substantial shares of the population to put off big purchases or delay major decisions, such as moving to a new city or getting married. And many people leaned on others to get through the hard times.
"The survey indicates that many households have been providing assistance to one another during periods of financial distress," the 100-page report said, noting that 34 percent helped friends or family with money.
Overall, the findings are consistent with many other studies and data depicting the deep, lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession. They provide fresh evidence that the recovery has been slow and uneven.
The survey found, for example, that 15 percent of those who had retired since 2008 had done so earlier than planned because of the downturn. Only 4 percent said they had retired later than expected. Based on demographics, that translates into roughly 2 million more people retiring since 2008 than if the recession had not occurred.
"This suggests that some of the folks who dropped out of the labor force during the recession will not be returning," said Scott Hoyt, an economist at Moody's Analytics.
The report, however, captured a snapshot of households last fall, so there is no comparable data from previous years to assess changes over time. Since then, the recovery stalled in the winter, bounced back in the spring and produced six straight months of job growth.
The central bank conducts a far more extensive survey of consumer finances every three years, but the results of the most recent one, for 2013, won't be released until early next year.
Even so, this latest snapshot, which the Fed said was aimed at monitoring the recovery and risks to financial stability, adds to the understanding of the severity of the Great Recession's effect on households and individuals.
The report suggested that Americans had a fairly positive outlook about their finances. More than 60 percent said they expected their income to stay the same in the next 12 months; 21 percent were looking for it to increase. Only 16 percent expected it to decline.