By Howard Schneider
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A quarter of U.S. families feel they are under economic stress due to the aftershock of the Great Recession and most do not expect their wages to increase in the next year, according to a new Federal Reserve study released on Thursday.
In its first large-scale study of household finances, the U.S. central bank uncovered lingering effects of the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, with 42 percent of respondents saying they had delayed major purchases and 18 percent saying they put off a major life decision, including buying a home or getting married, due to the crisis.
Thirty-six percent said they now planned to retire later, according to the online survey.
In a finding that could figure into the Fed's monetary policy debate, three-fourths of households said they expected their incomes to be the same or lower over the next year.
If true, it could mean the economy is far from generating the sort of strong wage growth that Fed Chair Janet Yellen and other policymakers say they hope to see before raising interest rates.
The Fed commissioned the survey, which was conducted last fall and weighted to be nationally representative, to try to better understand the forces shaping consumer behavior - the risks families feel they face and their perceptions of how they are doing economically.
It found more than 60 percent of the 4,100 respondents said they were either "doing okay" or "living comfortably," while a third said they were "somewhat worse off or much worse off financially than they had been five years ago."
The findings may help explain the choppy pace of recovery in areas like consumer spending, as well as the slow rebound in the housing market since the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
More than half of those surveyed said they had dipped into their savings as a result of the recession, and more than a third reported "going without some form of medical care" for financial reasons.
The Fed monitors less tangible indicators like consumer confidence to inform its policy debates. The Fed's Survey of Household Economics and Decision Making was meant to deepen the central bank's understanding of how households perceived their financial situation.
"Large-scale financial strain at the household level ultimately fed into broader economic challenges for the country, and the completion of the national recovery will ultimately be, in part, a reflection of the well-being of households and consumers," the Fed wrote in an executive summary of the findings.
"Economic challenges remain for a significant portion of the population," according to the survey, which was designed by Fed staff and conducted by online research firm GfK.
A follow-up survey is planned for this year.
(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)