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Despite improving US economy, credit lags in large areas

As the US recovery has gradually improved economic prospects of families, on-time payments and access to credit have improved, but there remain large areas where people are being left behind.

[WASHINGTON] As the US recovery has gradually improved economic prospects of families, on-time payments and access to credit have improved, but there remain large areas where people are being left behind.

Many people still cannot access traditional forms of credit, or have high credit delinquency rates, according to the New York Federal Reserve Bank's Community Credit report released Monday.

And even in healthy credit states there are pockets of serious problems, according to the data, which can provide tools for local governments and community groups to target their efforts.

There are counties that have "really low or adverse numbers and have had those numbers for years. It's a tale of two cities, the good right next to the troubled," said Kausar Hamdani, senior vice president in the Communications and Outreach Group at the New York Fed.

For the entire United States, the share of adults with a credit card or a home equity credit line improved to 69.7 per cent at the end of 2015, up from the post-crisis low of 67.7 per cent in 2013.

But far fewer people can count on these forms of credit than before the crisis, as the rate was 75 per cent in 2005, the report showed.

The data show more people are making sure to pay their bills on time. Those who were never more than 30 days past due on their credit payments in each quarter, the on-time payers, rose to 77.7 per cent last year, from a crisis low of 74.1 per cent in 2009.

And it appears Americans have learned some lessons about credit from the crisis: the on-time payer rate is well above the 76.3 per cent seen before the crisis in 2005.

But the New York Fed's online community credit heat maps, which provide pictures of the credit status by state and county for the past decade, illustrate in bright colors how the good news at the national level is countered by vast areas of not-so-good news.

In nearly half the states, mostly in the South and Midwest, less than 70 per cent of adults have access to a credit card or home equity line, and in seven Southern states the rate is less than 60 per cent. The on-time payment rate across the South also lags well behind the national rate, in many of those states below 70 per cent.

Even in states with the best credit picture, the heat maps show the pockets of problems: in Virginia, counties just outside the nation's capital have on-time payment rates above 80 per cent, but in the south-eastern corner of they state they are in the low 70s.

Ms Hamdani helped develop this credit data tool, first released last year, to fill in big data gaps.

"It seemed to me we needed something, a common base of information so we could have a sensible discussion not just about policy but about where the problems are and the dimension of those problems," she said.

The data is useful to groups working on consumer credit repair or access to credit, as well as local government officials, who need to understand the extent of the "two cities" problem.

Jonathan Mintz, president of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, which helps cities in their efforts to improve financial stability of low-income families, is enthusiastic about the potential for the data to help policymakers, calling it "a golden tool".

"What's really important in the data is the ability not just to zero in on where there are problems and therefore where to target resources, which is hugely important, but the ability to identify where the next problem area might be," Mr Mintz told AFP.

That means how to target resources, where to direct advertising about credit services, and where to locate services like credit counselling centres, he said.

The New York Fed gave an in-depth briefing on the data tool to the CFE coalition of 15 cities.

"This data has a huge credibility factor," Mr Mintz said.