The face of poverty keeps getting younger

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Social Justice

Living in a large city, it becomes very difficult to avoid daily encounters with poverty. On the six-corner intersection near my home, men experiencing homelessness, some proudly announcing themselves as veterans, routinely walk between cars stopped at the light in hopes of receiving a charitable gift. As you travel from one neighborhood to the next, you can't miss the people sleeping on sidewalks, seeking shelter on the trains, or selling the latest issue of StreetWise. Poverty is such a part of the landscape, in fact, that it can be easy to let it all blend into the background as part of daily life.

It isn't uncommon for me to pass at least a half-dozen people seeking help on the streets of downtown Chicago each morning during my walk from the train to the office. But in recent months, I've noticed more and more young faces among them--men and women who appear to be in their early- to mid-20's. Some days, all of the people I pass fall into this younger age bracket. 

Of course, this isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Ten years ago, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council reported that, "the estimated numbers of young adults who experience an episode of homelessness each year range from approximately 750,000 to 2 million, and are believed to be increasing." And that was before the bottom dropped out on the economy, both making it harder for young people to find work and to get jobs that pay enough to cover the costs of rent, food, and utilities.

Based on data from the 2012 Census, the poverty rate among people ages 18-24 was 20.4 percent, compared to a poverty rate of 15.9 percent for those ages 24-34. Among those in the 18-24 demographic with a four-year college degree, the poverty rate was still a troubling 12.6 percent. And according to a report published last year, young adults (ages 25-34) are the most likely age group to earn less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line and the most likely group to face unemployment.

The bottom line is that getting a good education, landing a job, and starting to build a financial foundation is getting harder and harder for young Americans. Thankfully, the U.S. Catholic bishops have decided it is time to speak up on this issue: Yesterday the bishops released their 2014 Labor Day statement, which focuses specifically on poverty and unemployment among young people. Written by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, the statement calls on the words of Pope Francis in addressing the tragedy that many young people face in our economy.

“For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many pay poorly. Greater numbers of debt-strapped college graduates move back in with their parents, while high school graduates and others may have less debt but very few decent job opportunities,” Wenski writes. “Pope Francis has reserved some of his strongest language for speaking about young adult unemployment, calling it ‘evil,’ an ‘atrocity,’ and emblematic of the ‘throwaway culture.’” Wenski called for policies like a higher minimum wage, better workforce training programs, and "smarter regulations that minimize negative unintended consequences" as a starting point for addressing the problem.

Poverty, unemployment, and homelessness are serious concerns no matter the age of the person experiencing them. There is something especially demoralizing, though, about seeing young people follow all the steps they've been told to take to succeed, only to end up barely hanging on before they've even gotten started with their career. As both the U.S. bishops and Pope Francis have noted, we can't afford to let this happen to our young people. We can't let these young people who are struggling to get by just blend into the background of our country's landscape. Not only is their future riding on it--so is the future of our society.

Flickr image cc by Byron Bignell