Poverty Haunts Far Too Many Young Adult Families

by Barbara Ray


Poverty is a trap that no one wants to fall into. And yet, as of 2011, about one in five 18-24-year-olds was in poverty and about 16% of those 25-34 were. With the exception of kids under age 5, young adults are the most likely to be in deep poverty, or living on incomes half the poverty level. That’s 3 million young adults who are in a deep hole just as they are taking their first steps as an adult.

What’s even more alarming is that nearly half of intact young families with children under age 6 are in poverty.

It has become almost a sport to hold up this generation of young people as slackers or coddled mamma’s boys, moving back home to the well-feathered nest of mom and dad. “Here’s a thought—get a job” is the sentiment you hear on the street. But clearly, given these numbers, there’s much more to the story.  They have a job. Probably two.

David Brooks in his op-ed column this morning captured it in a nutshell:

We’re living in a country where 53 percent of children born to women under 30 are born out of wedlock, according to government data. Millions of people, especially men, are dropping out of the labor force. Nearly half the students who begin college are unable to graduate within six years. The social fabric for people without college degrees is in shambles.

This generation is far from spoiled. It is struggling.  In 2011, the poverty threshold for a single person was $11,702. For a young mom and one child, the threshold was about $15,000. So, one in ten young adults age 18-24 is living on about $5,500-$7,000 a year.

One might naturally think that the reason these incomes are so low is that most of these young 20-somethings are in school (and thus not working) or living at home with mom and dad, who can support them. But not really.  In 2009, fewer than half (41.2%) of those in extreme poverty were enrolled in college. About six in ten do not live with their family.

The group in the most dire straits is most often a single mom or young families with children.

Six in ten of the young adults (18-24) in poverty were single mothers. And if mom has really young kids, the odds jump. Fully two-thirds of 18-24-year-old single moms with children under age 6 were in poverty in 2011. If she has two kids—might as well consign herself to poverty. 79.8% of single moms aged 18-24 with two young children were in poverty. We’ve heard much about the strides of young women lately—earning salaries higher than men’s, outnumbering men in college and graduate school. But clearly there is also a different tale.

But it’s not just single moms who are struggling. Young intact families with children are also at high risk for poverty. Among all families with children in 2011, 44.8% of those headed by an 18-24-year-old were in poverty. One age bracket up (25-34), and one-fourth were in poverty.

The wheels of adulthood are greased by earnings. Far too many of today’s generation are screeching along, metal on metal, the friction of their lives heating up. Their desperate straits make a college tuition bill, even a modest one, seem untenable. Critical training is therefore put aside in the self-defeating scramble for another buck at two part-time, minimum wage jobs. Unable to support a family, they put off marriage. They cannot buy a home. A medical emergency goes on a credit card (young adults are the most likely to be uninsured). As one young woman I and my coauthor interviewed for Not Quite Adults put it,  “It’s hard every day.” She was then living in a motel room with her husband and two kids after being evicted from their apartment.

Eventually, the wheels lock up tight.

Why we allow this to go unheeded is beyond me. It is no accident that only 2.6% of this generation’s grandparents (over age 65) live in such dire straits. We’ve agreed as a society to support our elderly with generous benefits such as Medicare and Social Security (and they deserve it). The nation was aghast at the poverty among the elderly in this country in the 1960s, and we put our backs into the problem and fixed it. The results are evident. The share of elderly in poverty (not just deep poverty) has fallen from a high of 35% in 1959 to 9% today.

Yet for some reason, we have no problem letting our young adults get buried in poverty before they even have a chance to get started. Why we don’t give them a shovel at this most critical stage in life—the point when you’re making decisions that will shape a life—is beyond me. (I blogged about this topic here.) We’re allowing their futures to be cut short. And in doing so, we’re cutting short our country’s future.

They don’t need handouts. They need a clearer roadmap and supports along the way. Young people need more direct paths from school to work. Too often the connection between what they learn in school and what they need on a job is murky. As a result, they drift. High school career academies (or here) are doing a good job of making those connections clear. We need more of them.

Education is the clearest route out of poverty. More programs like Opening Doors in community colleges are needed  if we are to improve the graduation rates above the dismal 50% or worse today. In that program, students move together in a group through classes; faculty coordinate their teaching; and there are various incentives to finish.

On the job, employers should be assuming more responsibility and cost for training their workers, given they benefit the most from skilled workers.

College overall needs to be more affordable, as does housing, especially in major cities where the jobs are. Why can’t we build “dorms” for working young people that offer weekend job fairs, employer seminars, child care, networks of services from health care to cheap movie tickets?

For families with children, as the Knot Yet report calls for, we need to expand the child tax credit to $3,000 per child and extend it not only to federal income taxes but also to payroll taxes. This could go a long way to easing the financial strain. The Earned Income Tax Credit is another lifesaver for young families. While the federal EITC helps many families avoid poverty, states can join in and offer their own EITC. Some states already do. We need more.

Creating more family-friend work places could also help families, and particularly mothers, achieve a better balance and signal to women that starting a family does not need to be at the expense of upward mobility. Currently, family-friendly work is largely confined to the white-collar professions (if even then). But Middle American families need supports even more. Yet until there is a more universal approach to work and family balance, we run a risk of creating the wrong incentives. As the Knot Yet report notes, “Such changes could be regulated, but would these lead to broader positive shifts in the American culture of work and family, or merely motivate employers to hire fewer young women?”

When more than one in five young people is in the financial strait-jacket of poverty, it is no longer a problem of those kids “over there.” This is not an inner city problem. This is not contained just to kids who make bad “choices.” These are Middle American young people. This is a national problem. These young people are the future.  We have the answers. This problem is not insolvable. We just need the political will to do it.