A young woman was asking me recently for tips on how to save. While we were talking, she admitted that she had a lot of credit card debt.

She was struggling to keep current because she didn't want to be seen as a bad person.

"Someone told me that poor credit is a sign that you don't have integrity," she said.

She was especially embarrassed because she is African American.

You see, in the black community, it's common for people to say things like "Our people are more worried about how we look than what our bank account looks like."

Somehow in the black community, the notion exists that we are America's biggest spendthrifts: Our closets have more clothes, we tell one another; we buy bigger and more expensive cars; our credit card debt is worse than the rest of America's.

Well, according to an illuminating report by two public policy groups looking at credit card debt in America, it turns out that blacks aren't the biggest credit card users.

"The Plastic Safety Net: The Reality Behind Debt in America" found that in low- and middle-income households, whites have the highest amount of credit card debt, over African Americans and Hispanics.

Non-Hispanic Caucasians had an average credit card debt of $8,972, compared with $7,926 for African Americans and $6,432 for Hispanic consumers.

But no matter the skin color of the consumer, the survey found, American families are turning to credit cards to make ends meet.

"American families are facing financial hardship not experienced for generations, and we commissioned this survey to tell us precisely why they are turning to credit cards so often," said Tamara Draut, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research and advocacy group based in New York. It co-authored the report with the Center for Responsible Lending, based in Durham, N.C.

I'm sure you've heard the skyrocketing consumer-debt figures. As reported by Demos and the center, credit card debt has almost tripled since 1989. Americans now owe close to $800 billion on their credit cards. People cashed out $333 billion in home equity from 2001 to 2003 in an attempt to free up much-needed cash, a lot of it to eliminate credit card debt.

People are in so much trouble that debt-consolidation commercials are as plentiful as autumn leaves in your back yard. In one such commercial, an upper-middle-class white suburban father proudly shows off his membership to a golf club, a big single-family home and a nice car. He turns to the camera with a stoic smile and says: "I'm in debt up to my eyeballs. Somebody please help me."

That commercial tells only half the story of why so many people, including blacks, are in debt. Many people aren't in credit card trouble because they're trying to live an inflated lifestyle. People are paying their medical bills with credit. They are paying the rent on credit. They are buying groceries on credit because they can't afford the food otherwise.

The survey findings reveal that much of the debt for low- and middle-income households is "safety net" debt. One out of three households reported using credit cards to cover basic living expenses, for an average of four out of the past 12 months.

Households that reported a recent job loss or unemployment, and those without health insurance in the past three years, were almost twice as likely to use credit cards for basic living expenses.

Nearly half of households reported that after periods of paying down their debt, events happened that caused them to run up the debt again.

"It's horrible [living paycheck to paycheck] -- you pray to God that none of your children get sick or that something like the refrigerator doesn't break down because then that's when you have to use the credit card to buy a new one, and that means getting into debt," said one California focus group participant.

To help ease the pain of paying with plastic, Demos and the Center for Responsible Lending offered a number of recommendations, including one that would limit interest rate increases imposed on consumers to no more than 50 percent above the account's original rate. For example, a 12 percent initial interest rate could not be increased to more than 18 percent.

"This policy would still provide the issuer with significant additional protection against payment risk," the groups say. "Recent changes in bankruptcy laws have provided additional protection for credit card issuers in the event of borrower default, further reducing the justification for higher penalty rates."

It's a good suggestion that doesn't have a chance of getting implemented.

What can change, however, is the beating up that people do on themselves for turning to credit to survive. As I told that young woman, struggling with credit card debt does not necessarily reflect a lack of financial values. It more often than not reflects an underpaid, unemployed or underinsured life.

* On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org.

* By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

* By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

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