NEW YORK (MainStreet) — We are becoming a nation of deadbeats.

That is the stark takeaway from a new report on the nation's personal debt issued by the Urban Institute. According to the data in "Delinquent Debt in America," 77 million of us - 35% - have a debt in collection, with the average debt amount at $5,178.

Nearly 12 million of us - 5.3% - have a debt that is at least 30 days behind. The average debt in serious arrears is $2,258.

Don't think this does not mean you.

"This report is a wakeup call," said Long Island lawyer Leslie Tayne, who specializes in debt relief. "It could be you. When was the last time you pulled your own credit report? You need to check once a year."

A lot of ignored debt, said Tayne, is for little stuff - unpaid medical co-pays or a health club memberships you jilted. The culprit could even be monthly account fees for a checking account you believed you closed by emptying out but you never formally terminated; now the institution is seeking to collect on that $14 per month you owe.

It is easy to be oblivious to that debt, said Tayne. If the amounts are "small" - generally under $500, she said - there ordinarily will not be vigorous collection. But the debt gets slapped on the debtor's credit report until it "times out," a term of legal art with different meanings in different states (generally three to seven years).

Of real interest: today's debt implosion is not necessarily a byproduct of the economic meltdown that occurred in 2008. It may not even be significantly higher than it typically has been in U.S. history. Reported the Urban Institute: "An alarming 35% of people with credit files have debt in collections reported in these files. This percentage is nearly identical to results from a 2004 analysis of credit bureau data by the Federal Reserve, which found that 36.5% of people with credit reports had debt in collections reported in their files."

Admittedly, the nation dipped into recession in 2001 and the 2004 debt numbers could be overhang from that. Nobody knows.

A lot of debt has geographical patterns, according to the Urban Institute. Some states - notably Utah, Washington and New Jersey-- have very little past due debt. A few others - in particular Texas and Louisiana - have many residents with debt issues.

"Consumers with reported debt in collections are concentrated geographically, especially in the South," the Urban Institute reported. "Roughly 40% of people with credit files in the East South Central, West South Central and South Atlantic divisions have debt in collections reported in their credit files. New England has the lowest concentration of reported debt in collections, although it is still a substantial 25%."

No real surprise: the state with the most debts in collection is Nevada, which was ground zero for the recent real estate meltdown. Noted the Urban Institute: "Nevada...tops the list of past-due states: 47% of people with a credit file have reported debt in collections."

McAllen, Texas leads the nation's metropolitan statistical areas with 51.7% of its people having a collection process noted in their credit reports - yes, that is more than one in two.

Las Vegas placed second, with 49.2% of its people showing debt collections in their credit reports.

What do the Urban Institute findings mean? They explain: "Financial distress is a daily challenge for millions of American consumers."

It's not always easy staying on top of bills. That's a painful fact in today's economy. But what's worse is losing touch with what you in fact owe.

"You can't be complacent about debt," said Tayne, the Long Island lawyer. "So many people come to me, thinking they have good credit and they don't. Check your credit and what you need to clean up, clean up. That's how you avoid this trouble."

--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

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