Roughly one-third of American consumers with a credit file have a debt in collections, according to the Urban Institute's latest report on debt, which focused on geographic distribution for the first time. That translates into an “alarming” 77 million people whose bills have gone unpaid for more than 180 days, and a disproportionately high number of them are in the South, the authors say.

The average debt amount in collections totals $5,178.16, though the authors found debt amounts vary widely by individual, from $25 to $125,000. Debts in collection may include debt from credit cards, medical bills, utility bills and parking tickets, but they typically do not include mortgage debt.

Approximately 12 million adults, or 5.3 percent of those with a credit file, have debt that is considered “past due,” or at least 30 days late. Past-due debt includes nonmortgage accounts, such as credit cards, automobile loans and student loans. “Among people with debt past due, the average amount they need to pay to become current on that debt is $2,258.80,” according to "Delinquent Debt in America," one of a pair of reports released Tuesday.

Some consumers may not even realize they have a debt in collections, but the effects can be long-lasting nevertheless. “Delinquent debt can lower credit scores and result in serious future consequences,” the report states. “Credit scores are used to determine eligibility for jobs, access to rental housing and mortgages, insurance premiums and access to (and the price of) credit in general.”

The percentage of adults with a debt in collections remains nearly unchanged from a decade ago. A 2004 analysis by the Federal Reserve “found that 36.5 percent of people with credit reports had debt in collections reported in their files,” compared to the 35 percent of people with credit files identified in the new Urban Institute report.  

The authors were particularly interested in how delinquent debt is distributed geographically. Their analysis of TransUnion credit bureau data shows that the South “has particularly high rates of financially distressed consumers, especially the percentage of consumers who have debt in collections.” Reasons for the Southern skew were not examined.

For example, across the nine U.S. Census regions, the three divisions in the South (East South Central, West South Central and South Atlantic) have the highest concentrations of people with debt in collections, and debt that is past due. Take a look at this chart:

Among the states, the authors note that the housing crisis took a heavy toll on Nevada, and it also has the highest share of adults with debt in collections: 47 percent.

Meanwhile, the District of Columbia and another 12 states -- 11 of them located in the South -- all top “the 40 percent mark” for debt that’s in collections.

Those states are: Alabama (41.7 percent), Arkansas (40.2 percent), Florida (41 percent), Georgia (42 percent), Kentucky (41.9 percent), Louisiana (43.8 percent), Mississippi (44.7 percent), New Mexico (40.8 percent), North Carolina (40.3 percent), South Carolina (46.2 percent), Texas (44.7 percent) and West Virginia (41.5 percent).