ITHACA, N.Y.– Tompkins County’s housing costs are high, the weather may be abominable half the year and the potholes are the stuff of legend, but it appears to have something in its favor – a relatively low proportion of households that are up to their ears in debt.

According to recent estimates, 33% of American households have bills in collections (180 days past due), and in the second quarter of 2017, consumers owed a grand total of $13 trillion in loans and debt. For households that are primarily non-white, the percentage is even worse at 45%. These past-due bills range from medical debt to student loans, unpaid parking tickets, credit card bills, and child support. When a lot of a community’s households have been sent to debt collections, it’s an economic drag – credit scores suffer, and big-ticket sale items like homes and cars become riskier bets, and therefore less likely to happen.

Seeking to put some geography to those figures, the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank, plotted household debt by county with the help of over five million anonymized records courtesy of an unnamed major credit bureau’s 2016 files (there are really only three choices here – it was either Equifax, TransUnion or Experian). These records kept individual names and addresses out, but did include the debtor’s amount owed and their zip code. It appears ethnicity was derived from Census data indicating whether a certain zip code was majority white, or non-white. The interactive map can be found here.

household debt tompkina

In Tompkins County, records indicate that 22% of households have some form of debt in collections, statistically meaning that for every five of your neighbors, one of them is being hounded by debt collectors for an unpaid bill of some kind, be it medical debt, credit card bills or something else. But really, much of it is medical debt, almost two-thirds (64%) of those who have the collectors calling. The median owed by a household in collections was $1,153. Keep in mind, these values are actually better than the national average.

Tompkins County’s stats are somewhat better than the state as a whole – New York State averages 25% of households in debt (including 34% of non-white households), with an average debt amount of $1,325. In general, more affluent and economically prosperous areas (downstate suburbs, Saratoga, Tompkins) performed better; regionally, values range from Tompkins’ low of 22%, to 39% of households in Tioga County having debt in collections. In Cortland County and Schuyler County, one out of every three households is in trouble for past-due bills.

Nationwide, the largest proportional debt carriers tended to be in Appalachia and the Deep South, while the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas) was the least likely to have debt collectors calling. This is likely due to a higher poverty rate in southern and Appalachian communities, and the percentage of people without health insurance in these areas tends to be higher, meaning an emergency room visit is far more likely to involve someone without insurance, and who is about to take on a lot of medical debt. On the flip side, Minnesota has one of the most encompassing Medicaid programs in the country, so lower-income families are less likely to end up with a lot of medical debt.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at