Yep, Being a Young, American Adult Is a Financial Nightmare

Here are the graphs to prove it.
A woman browses brochures at a job fair in Los Angeles (Reuters)

Poverty is an astonishingly common experience here in the world's richest country. As I wrote this morning, almost 40 percent of American adults experience it for at least a year by age 60. 

But you know who poverty is especially common among? Young adults. 

Based on the data I shared earlier, which were given to me by Washington University in St. Louis professor Mark Rank, I've pulled together a few more graphs that I think illustrate the difficulty of making ends meet in your twenties and early thirties (particularly if you're not lucky enough to, say, have a college degree). Exhibit a) between the ages of 25 and 34, 41.3% percent of Americans will spend at least a year earning less than 150 percent of the poverty line, which is a technical way of saying "being pretty broke." By age 35, a little more than a quarter will have lived under the actual poverty line, which is the technical way of saying, "really truly broke."

Why are young adults so poverty prone? Partly because, by definition, they tend to lack work experience and earn less than later in life. But as a group, we're also prone to getting fired and laid off. Almost half of young adult households face a period of unemployment at some point.

Perhaps surprisingly, they're only slightly more likely than 35 to 44-year-olds to take advantage of the safety net. But that still means almost a third of young adults end up using a program like food stamps or Medicaid to get by for a while. 

Mind you, these numbers aren't just a snapshot of today's economy, which has been notoriously dreadful for Millennials. Rather, they're drawn from an analysis of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics data collected between 1968 and 2009. So in a sense, they're a longterm assessment poverty through the American lifecycle. What they tell us, then, is that twenty and early thirty-somethings have lived financially wobbly lives in the U.S. for a very long time. Every generation has its horror stories about being young and poor. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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