Alaska is getting more nationwide attention than usual because of the presidential campaign, but one little-discussed fact about the state is its longtime status as the top one for credit card debt.
For fourth straight year Alaska had the highest average credit card debt per borrower in the second quarter, the Chicago credit bureau TransUnion LLC said last week. The state average increased 4.84% from the first quarter and 8.77% from a year earlier, to $2,493.69, or almost $800 higher than the national average.
In the past decade Alaska has occasionally dropped to second or third place, but it has consistently posted a debt average several hundred dollars higher than the national one.
Observers cited the state's high cost of living; its distance from "the lower 48" states; what some called a low level of consumer financial education; and the impact of the Permanent Fund Dividend, an annual oil-royalty payout to all state residents. (This year that dividend, the highest ever, was supplemented by an energy-relief rebate for a total payment of $3,269, which most Alaskans received on Sept. 12.)
"Getting $3,200 might actually increase people's debt," said Steve Cleary, the executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, because they are encouraged to spend the money on discretionary items.
Larry Snider, the chief executive of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Alaska, said the dividend is often used to buy luxuries. "That's not to say that there aren't families that aren't taking that and their children's dividends and putting them in the bank and college education funds, but that's the exception, rather than the rule."
By and large, Alaskans are paying their credit card bills. TransUnion ranks the state 30th in 90-day delinquencies and said its second-quarter rate was 0.89%, versus the national average of 1.04%.
Also, Alaska ranked 15th in the nation last year in per capita income, with $39,934, or $1,370 more than the national average, according to the Commerce Department.
David Lawer, the general counsel of the First National Bank Alaska in Anchorage and the president of the Alaska Bankers Association, said he "really cannot imagine" that the higher debt level has been a problem for the state.
"Our default losses have been very low for quite some time," Mr. Lawer said. "Our principal problem with respect to credit cards has been security breaches."
John Stapleford, a senior economist at Moody's Economy.com who follows Alaska, said, "They do have serious fuel and food price inflation." The cost of transportation — to and from the state and from its cities to its rural areas — "is always problematic," he said.
State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, introduced legislation this year that would have required issuers to recognize the date card payments were postmarked, rather than when they were received. The bill, spurred by complaints that slow mail delivery had caused consumers to incur late fees, never made it out of committee. He said his constituents, though livid about the late fees, are less aware of their card spending habits. "There is very little financial education. That plays a very big factor."
Mr. Lawer and others speculated that the statewide popularity of Bank of America Corp.'s cobranded card with Alaska Airlines may also have played a role in raising Alaskans' card balances. "Everyone uses their credit card for absolutely everything, because you get mileage," said Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of economics and public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research. If Alaskans' average card debt is "always higher and people are paying them off, I would say that's the explanation."
B of A did not respond to requests for comment.