High interest rates are hitting poorer Americans the hardest

Chris Nunn, who says he has too little credit and too much debt to buy a home, and his rent keeps rising, in Louisville, Ky., May 9, 2024. The economy as a whole has proved resilient amid the highest rates in decades. But beneath the surface, many low- and moderate-income families are struggling. (David Kasnic/The New York Times)

High interest rates haven’t crashed the financial system, set off a wave of bankruptcies or caused the recession that many economists feared.

But for millions of low- and moderate-income families, high rates are taking a toll.


More Americans are falling behind on payments on credit card and auto loans, even as many are taking on more debt than ever before. Monthly interest expenses have soared since the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates two years ago. For families already strained by high prices, dwindling savings and slowing wage growth, increased borrowing costs are pushing them closer to the financial edge.

“It’s crazy,” said Ora Dorsey, a 43-year-old Army veteran in Clarksville, Tennessee. “It does make it hard to get out of debt. It seems like you’re only paying the interest.”

Dorsey has been working for years to chip away at the debts she accrued when a series of health issues left her temporarily out of work. Now she is juggling three jobs to try to pay off thousands of dollars in credit card balances and other debts. She is making progress, but high rates aren’t helping.

“How am I supposed to retire?” she asked. “I’m not able to save, have that rainy-day fund, because I’m trying to take down the debt that I have.”

Dorsey isn’t likely to get relief soon. Fed officials have indicated that they expect to keep interest rates at their current level, the highest in decades, for months. And although policymakers still say they are likely to cut rates eventually, assuming inflation slows down as expected, they could consider raising them further if prices begin rising faster again. The latest evidence will come Wednesday, when the Labor Department releases data showing whether inflation cooled in April or remained uncomfortably hot for a fourth straight month.

The overall economy has proved unexpectedly resilient to high interest rates. Consumers have continued spending on travel, restaurant meals and entertainment thanks to rising wages and debt levels that, despite their recent increase, remain manageable as a share of income for most people.

But aggregate figures obscure an underlying divide that is likely to widen the longer interest rates remain high. Affluent households, and even many in the middle class, have largely been insulated from the effects of the Fed’s policies. Many took out long-term mortgages when rates were at rock bottom in 2020 or earlier — if they don’t own their homes outright — and most have little if any variable-rate debt. And they are benefiting from higher returns on their savings.

For poorer families, it is different. They are likelier to carry a balance on credit cards, meaning they’re more likely to feel high rates. According to Fed data, about 56% of people earning less than $25,000 carried a credit card balance in 2022, compared with 38% of those earning more than $100,000. Black Americans, like Dorsey, and Latinos are also more likely to carry balances.

Recent economic research suggests that high borrowing costs may be one reason for Americans’ dim view of the state of the economy. In surveys, lower-income households remain particularly dour about their financial well-being.

Barbara Martinez, a financial counselor in Chicago who works at Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit group, said that for many of her low-income clients, debt is inescapable, especially since food prices and rents have soared. They don’t have savings to cover unexpected expenses such as car repairs or illness. And although high borrowing costs aren’t necessarily causing their financial difficulties, they make dealing with debt much harder.

“You’re trying to get out of the ocean, but the waves keep pushing you back,” she said. “No matter how much you swim, you get tired.”

High interest rates are always tougher on borrowers than on savers. But most of the time, they also push down the value of stocks, houses and other assets. That means rate increases usually affect households across the income spectrum, albeit in different ways.

That isn’t how things have played out recently. Stock prices fell when the Fed began raising rates, but have rebounded and are near a record. Home prices have continued rising in most of the country.

The result is a growing divide. Fed data suggests that wealth for the upper half dipped after the Fed’s initial rate increase in 2022, but is again setting records. For the bottom half, however, wealth remains below its level before the Fed began raising rates, after subtracting credit card and mortgage debt and other liabilities.

Although high interest rates have affected many families, they have not so far caused the widespread job losses that many progressive critics predicted and that have historically been hardest on lower-wage workers. The unemployment rate remains low, including for Black and Hispanic workers, who are often more prone to lose their jobs when the economy weakens. And wage growth over the past several years has been strongest for lower-paid workers.

For most people, “the big issue is whether you’re holding on to your job,” said C. Eugene Steuerle, a fellow at the Urban Institute who has studied how monetary policy affects inequality.

But high rates today could make it harder for many families to build wealth in the longer run by making homeownership more difficult. They could also curb the construction of apartments and houses, which over time could further push up rents.

The result: a generation of young adults who fear they can neither afford to buy nor rent.

Chris Nunn, 31, has accumulated more than $6,000 in credit card debt, most of it from moving expenses tied to rent increases. His rent in Louisville, Kentucky, keeps rising, and he sees little hope of paying off the debt with what he makes driving for DoorDash while completing a college degree.

“We don’t have the credit to be able to buy a house, and we have a bunch of debt — either student loans or credit card debt,” he said. “So we’re trapped.”

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