Among the questions we asked in the Marketplace-Edison Research poll was how people would handle an unexpected expense. About a quarter of respondents said it would be very difficult to come up with $1,000 to cover a bill, and about a third said it would be "somewhat difficult.
The finding confirms that many people lack personal savings, investments and retirement accounts they can tap into during an emergency.
The numbers are particularly bad for African-Americans, only half of whom have personal savings, compared to 68 percent of the overall population. Under 20 percent have investments or IRAs, with Hispanics not doing much better.
Below is the story of Earnest Pettie, a 38-year-old African-American man who lives in Los Angeles. He describes what it's like to live with no economic safety net.
Pettie's comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.
In 2008, right after we got married, my wife, Claire, and I moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles. I transferred from a video store in Tulsa to a video store here, and weeks after moving here, I lost that job and we immediately were in dire straits economically.
My wife is very sick and requires a lot of medical care and a lot of medicine. I did manage to get a job eventually and that job paid $12 an hour, and we were able to sort of reach a point where we were subsisting more or less. [But] I got laid off from that job during a time when my wife was getting sicker.
Earnest Pettie, pictured above, said a combination of job loss and medical debt pushed him to take out payday loans, which he has since paid back. Twenty-two percent of African-Americans in our poll have used payday loans, compared to 14 percent for the general population.
Once upon a time, I kept this box that had our bills in it and the intent with this box was that, over time, I would take bills out and pay them and we would slowly start to climb out of the medical debt that we were in, but when this box became too big to manage and was starting to spill over, I just decided that we would put that box away and never speak of it again.
Claire and I were asking her parents and my parents and my sister to borrow money a lot, and there is a point at which your parents or your siblings or your friends have given what they can afford to give and what you're asking goes beyond that and is an amount of money that can destabilize their economic situation. Thankfully my wife and I both really love ramen, so we were able to get by on that.