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Money pressures pile up on the U.S. consumer

The economic slowdown is making long-term woes – such as rising debt and slim pay raises – more acute.

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Unemployment has risen by half a percentage point in the past year, but there's been a larger rise in the percentage of the labor force working less than desired.

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An alternative measure of the jobless rate, also provided by the Labor Department, includes "discouraged" people who would like to find a job but aren't actively looking, and those who want full-time work but have part-time jobs. By that gauge, unemployment has risen from 8.2 percent of the labor force a year ago to 9.2 percent as of April. The April numbers saw a big jump in the number of workers in the part-time predicament.

Carter, whose part-time job is at a medical center, falls in that category. She'd like to earn more to supplement her husband's income as an office-equipment technician. Their debts include student loans from his school years, as well as the winter oil bill.

For many Americans, mortgages are just part of a debt load that's been rising in recent years.

According to a recent survey sponsored by Securian Financial Group, large numbers of consumers are carrying a balance from month to month on their credit cards. Nearly half of baby boomers in the survey were doing so, for example.

And 47 percent of survey respondents in the younger Generation Y had student loans, up from 30 percent of Generation X respondents.

But home loans have been the biggest form of debt. In recent years, mortgage debt has been rising faster than home values, and lately, home prices have been falling.

One result: In new numbers from the Mortgage Bankers Association, a record 1 percent of US homes are in foreclosure as of the year's first quarter.

Another implication, which bears on consumers' ability to spend: The net worth of households is now falling.

According to a Federal Reserve report released Thursday, the overall net worth of America's households fell for a second straight quarter during the year's first three months. The value of both financial assets and home equity fell, while the amount of home-mortgage debt rose.

That's a recipe for a slow economy at best, and possibly for a sharp consumer slowdown. It's retirees as well as working Americans who feel the strain.

"I've had to cut back on a lot of things, [including] tough choices on food," says Jack Donovan, a resident of Brookline, Mass. Social Security adjustments for the cost of living aren't keeping pace with inflation, he says, so he's turning to his individual retirement account.

"My IRA keeps decreasing every month," he adds.

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