This month's Consumer Reports Index, a gauge of overall consumer financial health, showed a drop in consumer sentiment, an increase in financial troubles, and a jump in stress levels for consumers despite reports that the economy is showing signs of improvement. In addition, the gap has widened between wealthy and lower-income households.
The Consumer Reports Index comprises five key indices: the Trouble Tracker Index, the Sentiment Index, the Stress Index, the Retail Index and the Employment Index.
April's trouble tracker, which gauges the amount and frequency of financial difficulties consumers face, increased slightly this month to 54.5 from 52.2 in March, and is at its highest level since August, 2011. However, the impact of those problems varies greatly by household income. For households earning less than $50,000 the trouble tracker stands at 72.0, more than twice the level of those in households earning $100,000 or more (29.1). Among lower-income households, in the past 30 days, 23.3 percent reported they were unable to afford medical bills or medications; 13.5 percent missed payment on a major bill (not including their mortgages); and 9.3 percent reported lost or reduced healthcare coverage.
The Consumer Reports Index's consumer sentiment measure declined to 44.6 from 46.1 last month, and the gap in confidence has widened between the 50 percent of American households that earn less than $50,000 and wealthier Americans earning $100,000 or more.
The discomfort many Americans are reporting is reflected in the stress measure, which was up sharply in April to 64.3 from 57.5 last month. At current levels, stress is at the highest it's been since September 2009.
The Consumer Reports Index's employment measure slipped slightly for April (49.3) from last month (49.9), and is well below its recent high in January of 50.6. It tracks the number of Americans who reported they started a new job in relation to the percentage who said they lost a job. In the past 30 days, 7.1 percent of Americans reported losing a job, while 5.8 percent started a new job.
Ed Farrell, director of market research at the Consumer Reports National Research Center said:
A majority of consumers have yet to feel or see any improvement in their own financial situation. Unless the employment market improves and many of these factors change, it could be some time before we see a true return to optimism.
Consumer spending on retail has yet to regain its footing since the winter holiday season. The Consumer Reports Index's past 30-day retail measure, which reflects purchases in several categories made in March, fell slightly to 11.3 from 11.5 last month. Planned purchasing for April was 8.0, down from 8.7 the prior month, dimming hopes for an upturn in the near future.
The Consumer Reports Index, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, is a monthly telephone and cell phone poll of a nationally representative probability sample of American adults. A total of 1,017 interviews were completed (767 telephone and 250 cell phone) among adults aged 18 and older. Interviewing took place between March 29 and April 1. The margin of error is +/- 3.2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.