As we continue to struggle to create jobs and prosperity for Americans, I’m increasingly worried about the youngest generation. While they’re a resilient bunch, the long malaise of unemployment — and more likely underemployment–takes its toll. As recent college graduates join the queue in front of the job fairs and send their resumes out by the dozens into the seeming oblivion of human resource departments, their time out of the workforce tick-tocks against them. They may start out with a bit of optimism (remember the “funemployment” tweets of 20-somethings a few years ago), but that optimism quickly curdles. Disappointment becomes the new normal. They settle. They take jobs as bartenders and temps–anything to get them out of the house and doing something.
But as college grads take the jobs that don’t require a degree, they replace those who would normally work those jobs, and the ripple effect continues right down the line. This pressure starts above college grads, of course. It is older workers who are hanging on for dear life to jobs and the laid-off older workers desperate for any job — often jobs that newly minted graduates would take.
At the bottom of the pack is a grim reality: poverty or near poverty. Today’s poverty threshold for a single person in 2009 was $11,161. In 2009, 20.7% of young adults age 18-24 were in poverty. Nearly 15% of those age 25 to 34 were in poverty that year. The official poverty rate for all ages (0-85+) was 14.3% in 2009.
Here’s two charts that show poverty and near poverty (earning income at 150% of the poverty level) by age and gender in 2009.
[ Source: U.S.Census Bureau, Annual Social Economic Supplement, "POV 34: Single Year of Age Poverty Status," 2009]
What these charts show is that the 20s are a vulnerable time. The poverty rates and near-poverty rates are higher than national averages throughout much of the 20s and early 30s, but particularly in the early years. (These data do not include kids in college dorms or military barracks.) The “all ages” bar on the far left is the national average for those ages 0-85+. You can compare the rates for young adults against that bar to see how they fare against the average U.S. poverty and near-poverty rates.
Age 25 seems to be an age when things start to get a little better. Poverty rates drop rather suddenly between age 24 and 25 and then stay lower throughout the rest of the 20s. That suggests that wages are beginning to grow with time on the job. Perhaps there’s been an advancement on the job, but more likely is that young people have changed jobs one or two times, with a pay bump each time.
However, with the recession holding everyone back, those job changes and pay bumps are not occurring, which likely means that the poverty rates will remain higher further into the 20s going forward. That’s worrisome. Living on $11,000 or $13,000 a year is no picnic. When apartments in major cities cost $700-800 for a one-bedroom (and higher in places like NYC), and with college loans adding a couple hundred dollars to that bottom line each month, not to mention food and utilities, it quickly becomes impossible to make ends meet. Living hand to mouth is a losing battle. Pretty soon, the beater of a car breaks down, a tire goes flat, or an unexpected doctor’s bill adds to the pile. For those whose parents cannot help out, they can quickly sink.
The charts above also show how much more precarious life is for young women. The poverty rates for women are consistently and significantly higher than rates for men–despite women’s higher rates of college attainment. At age 25, fully one-fourth of women are in poverty. One-fourth! Why the higher rates? It’s complicated, but for starters, women are paid less in the workforce (averaging about 20 cents less on the dollar than men). They also must sometimes support children on their own. Early families are fragile families. They more often than not break up, leaving mom to care for the child. Add to this trouble landing a job, any job, in today’s climate, and the picture is grim for many.
It all starts with a job. We must do better at creating family-sustaining jobs for all Americans. But for our future, we must turn our attention to the most vulnerable young adults and make sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle.
Poverty has a long reach. Its effects are felt in many ways, and they have a tendency to linger for years. The stress of living hand to mouth eats away at health and mental health. The conditions of poverty for children follow them into the classroom, make it difficult to focus and to pay attention. Their learning begins to lag behind their classmates. Living in low-income neighborhoods comes with its own set of dangers and strains, ranging from a lack of good grocery stores to serious violence and victimization. The long-term costs of NOT attending to poverty on a nation are paid in higher health care bills, greater imprisonment, less worker productivity, and a host of other social effects.
In this country, alleviating poverty begins with jobs. We must take that call seriously. We must demand compromise in this poisoned political environment because without us all at the table, nothing will get done and we will languish in the muck of “me-first” short-sighted politics when we need long-range solutions and above all, vision, if we are to ensure our future via the security of this current generation and the one right behind it.