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WASHINGTON -- A study by the Urban Institute shows that more than 35 percent of Americans have debts and unpaid bills that have been reported to collection agencies.

These consumers fall behind on credit cards or hospital bills. Their mortgages, auto loans or student debt pile up, unpaid. Even past-due gym membership fees or cellphone contracts can end up with a collection agency, potentially hurting credit scores and job prospects.

The study by the Washington-based think tank released Tuesday points to a disturbing trend: The share of Americans in collections has remained relatively constant, even as the country as a whole has whittled down the size of its credit card debt since the official end of the Great Recession in the middle of 2009.

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