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The State of Young America: Left Out In the Cold

Catherine Ruetschlin

There is a brand new housing crisis looming on the horizon and none of the financial or foreclosure reforms being considered get anywhere close to solving it. 

According to an article in the Times yesterday, homelessness is on the rise among America’s young adults and couches, cars, and shelters are filling up fast.  For Millennials, the Great Recession left a scar of insecurity across labor markets, net worth, and future prospects, positioning their starting line just steps away from defeat. 

Many of those with family resources have become “boomerangs,” returning to the home of their parents while they search for better opportunities and a chance for independence.  But without assets or reliable employment, those who can’t or won’t return to the nest end up on far more dangerous ground, left out of the system and forgotten in policy debates.  From the article:

These young adults are the new face of a national homeless population, one that poverty experts and case workers say is growing. Yet the problem is mostly invisible. Most cities and states, focusing on homeless families, have not made special efforts to identify young adults, who tend to shy away from ordinary shelters out of fear of being victimized by an older, chronically homeless population.

Those cities that do count the young and homeless find distressing results. Boston saw the number of young adults who were homeless and looking for shelter grow by 3 percentage points from 2010 to 2011.  Los Angeles identified 3,600 young adults living on the street last year, but they had shelter space to accommodate less than 1 in 5 of them. 

The rise in homelessness is an extension of the persistent jobs crisis, where the consequences have hit young adults hard. Since Millennials joined the labor market wages have declined, post-recession job growth occurred primarily in low wage sectors, and about 70 percent of the new jobs went to workers over 55.  Meanwhile, more than one in three unemployed workers is between ages 20 and 34. These young adults want and need a chance to make a contribution and start building their future, but instead more than three years after the recession officially ended they still struggle to survive. The executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Barbara Poppe, makes the link explicit:

They need more than just clean clothes and shelter to move into a secure adulthood, experts say. “They want a way out,” said Ms. Poppe, whose agency is also gathering evidence on what kinds of programs and outreach work best. “They want an opportunity to develop skills so they are marketable in the long term.”

Millennials have been told that their vulnerability is the product of unfortunate timing, but that is not entirely true.  More accurately, young adults are imperiled by the bad luck of coming of age during a massive recession coupled with the privileging of other priorities—such as undermining workers’ rights or gutting public investment—over social stability. The result is an increasingly precarious population that cannot count on the opportunity to make a living through honest work and have declining access to the resources that could help them re-engage under the new realities of the labor market.

The foundation of our economic and democratic future has literally been left out in the cold. 

Catherine Ruetschlin is a Policy Analyst at Demos and writes a monthly report on youth employment