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Behind America's divided economy: Booming luxury travel and a jump in 'relief' loans

At American Express, consumers are continuing to open high-fee credit cards and splurge on luxuries like travel. But for lending firm Upstart, there's a strong interest in microloans as cash-strapped Americans try to scrape by.

That juxtaposition underscores the growing picture of bifurcation among income brackets in America. And adds to an increasingly popular view that the U.S. is experiencing a "K"-shaped recovery since the end of the pandemic, where higher income classes reap the most benefits and lower-income Americans tread water or fall behind.

It's led to a confusing picture of the U.S. economy that can impact everything from how the Federal Reserve will move interest rates next to who Americans will vote for in November. On top of this, some are worried it will threaten the surprisingly resilient economy that has been a worldwide marvel. And it comes at a unique moment with consumers once against leaning on debt and many beginning to crack.

"Our consumers are doing really well," American Express CFO Christophe Le Caillec told CNBC last month, citing spending on flights and dinning out. "They're enjoying life for sure."

American Express' typical consumer is affluent and is showing every sign that they are chugging along in the face of stubborn inflation and lingering economic uncertainty. More than 3 million new credit cards — which sometimes carry annual fees costing up to hundreds of dollars — were issued in the latest quarter. U.S. cardholders as a whole spent 8% more in the most recent three-month period.

First-quarter airline spending on American Express cards climbed 9% from the prior quarter, underscoring a continued willingness to pay for experiences. First-class travel has exhibited special strength, though