Poverty Has Hit Young Folks the Hardest This Recession

The poverty rate's jumped to 22 percent for U.S. minors, while staying only 9 percent for seniors

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Today's U.S. Census Bureau report on poverty in America today paints a pretty grim picture: the poverty rate--the percentage of American with incomes below $22,314 (a figure annually adjusted with inflation)--reached a 17-year high in 2010, at 15.1 percent. While that record-high figure may be overestimating the actual level of poverty in the U.S.--since subsidies for food, rent, and other goods and services aren't factored in--the changes in the poverty rates for different demographics in the U.S. can give us insight into who's been hit hardest by the recession. One of the most startling demographic differences from the report? America's elderly have been relatively well-insulted from the recession--it's the young people who've had it worst.

The poverty rates for those under 65 have increased from 2009 to 2010 in the wake of the late-2000s recession, which officially ended in the summer of 2009. For 18- to 64-year-old Americans, it jumped from 12.9 percent in 2009 to 13.7 percent in 2010, the highest it's been since 1959, according to the available data. But for older Americans, those 65 or older, the poverty rate hovered near the record low set in 2009, changing a statistically insignificant amount. But the most dramatic swing in poverty occurred for those under 18. The poverty rate for that age group made a 1.3-point jump to a whopping 22.0 percent, a level that hasn't been seen for America's minor since the early 1990s.

Today's chart brings into relief a popular argument made in the discussion surrounding the recession: it's disproportionately impacting younger Americans at a time in their lives--at the start of their careers--when they're particularly vulnerable. The Washington Post's Suzy Khimm tries to put the figures into context:

It seems that Social Security has provided a safety net that’s weathered the recession: without this income, the poverty rate for Americans over 65 would have risen by 13.8 million, the Census says.

And as bad as things look for other age groups, the safety net has also prevented even more younger Americans from falling into poverty: without unemployment insurance benefits, the poverty rate for other adults would have risen by 2.3 million and children by 900,000.

So things might be even worse for young Americans without the government's help. Casey B. Mulligan, an economist writing for The New York Times's Economix blog, offers some more insight. Last week he charted the change in work hours by age during the recession and found that those over 62 tended to work more in 2010 than they did three years earlier while everyone younger worked less. Mulligan tries to identify some of the reasons underpinning the anomaly: that seniority layoff practice tend to keep older people in jobs, that the crashes in the stock and housing markets gave the asset-rich elderly extra incentive to work, or that older works are simply more skilled for the few jobs out there.

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