More than 35 percent of Americans have debts and unpaid bills that have been reported to collection agencies, and that number is even higher across much of the South, in Florida and in the Tampa Bay metro area, according to a study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute.
Eleven Southern states plus Nevada and the District of Columbia top the list of past-due-debt states, all reporting more than 40 percent of their populations with a credit file reporting debt in collections. Statewide, Florida had 41 percent with delinquent debt, with some of the highest delinquencies appearing in metropolitan Lakeland (47.3 percent), Jacksonville (45 percent), Orlando (44.8 percent) and Tampa Bay (41.6 percent).
These consumers fall behind on credit cards or hospital bills. Their mortgages, auto loans or student debt pile up. 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 Urban Institute, a Washington public policy think tank.
"Roughly, every third person you pass on the street is going to have debt in collections," Ratcliffe said. "It can tip employers' hiring decisions, or whether or not you get that apartment."
The "Delinquent Debt in America" study indicates that 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 Great Recession in the middle of 2009. The study found that 35.1 percent of people nationwide with credit records had been reported to collections for debt that averaged $5,178, based on September 2013 records.
The average debt in collections in the Tampa Bay area was higher at $6,287.
Ratcliffe said that stagnant incomes are key to why some parts of the country are struggling to repay their debt.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.