A broad array of new Census Bureau data released Tuesday documents the far-reaching impact of a business slump that experts say technically ended in June 2009: a surging demand for food stamps, considerably fewer homeowners and people doubling up in housing to save money.
The new figures show, among other things, that marriages fell to a record low level in 2009, with just 52 percent of adults 18 and over saying they were joined in wedlock, compared to 57 percent in 2000. Many young people, at the same time, struggled to find work and achieve economic independence.
The government already had revealed that the, stark evidence of the impact the long recession starting in 2007 has had in upending lives and putting the young at greater risk.
The top-earning 20 percent of Americans - those making more than $100,000 each year - received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to the newly released Census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.
A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.
At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, government data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.
Three states - New York, Connecticut and Texas - and the District of Columbia had the largest gaps in rich and poor, disparities that exceeded the national average. Similar income gaps were evident in large cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta, home to both highly paid financial and high-tech jobs as well as clusters of poorer immigrant and minority residents.
On the other end of the scale, Alaska, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Hawaii had the smallest income gaps.
"Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more," said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. "More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy."
Lower-skilled adults ages 18 to 34 had the largest jumps in poverty last year as employers kept or hired older workers for the dwindling jobs available, Smeeding said. The declining economic fortunes have caused many unemployed young Americans to double-up in housing with parents, friends and loved ones, with potential problems for the labor market if they don't get needed training for future jobs, he said.
Rea Hederman Jr., a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, agreed that Census data show families of all income levels had tepid earnings in 2009, with poorer Americans taking a larger hit. "It's certainly going to take a while for people to recover," he said.
On the issue of marriage among adults 25-34, roughly 46.3 percent reported they had never wed. It was the first time the share of unmarried young adults exceeded the 44.9 percent who were married.
Homeownership declined for the third year in a row to 65.9 percent, after hitting a peak of 67.3 percent in 2006. Residents in crowded housing held steady at 1 percent, the highest since 2004, a sign that people continued to "double up" to save money.
The number of U.S. households receiving food stamps surged by 2 million last year to 11.7 million, the highest level on record, meaning that 1 in 10 families were receiving the government aid. In all, 46 states and the District of Columbia had increases in food stamps, with the largest jumps in Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin.
The Census figures come weeks before the pivotal Nov. 2 congressional elections, when voters anxious about rising deficits and the slow pace of the economic recovery will decide whether to keep Democrats in power.
Part of the heated debate centers on whether Congress should extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts. President Barack Obama wants to extend the tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000 and joint filers making less than $250,000; Republicans are pushing for tax cuts for everyone including wealthy Americans.
The 2009 Census tabulations, which are based on pre-tax income and exclude capital gains, are adjusted for household size where data are available. Prior analyses of after-tax income made by the wealthiest 1 percent compared to middle- and low-income Americans have also pointed to a widening inequality gap, but only reflect U.S. data as of 2007.
Among the 2009 findings:
-The poorest poor are at record highs. The share of Americans below half the poverty line - $10,977 for a family of four - rose from 5.7 percent in 2008 to 6.3 percent. It was the highest level since the government began tracking that group in 1975.
-The poverty gap between young and old has doubled since 2000, due partly to the strength of Social Security in helping buoy Americans 65 and over. Child poverty is now 21 percent compared with 9 percent for older Americans. In 2000, when child poverty was at 16 percent, elderly poverty stood at 10 percent.
-Safety nets are helping fill health gaps. The percentage of children covered by government-sponsored health insurance such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program jumped to 37 percent, or 27.6 million, from 24 percent in 2000. That helped offset steady losses in employer-sponsored insurance.
The 2009 poverty level was set at $21,954 for a family of four, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income. It excludes noncash aid such as food stamps.
Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted the effects of expanded government programs in cushioning the impact of skyrocketing unemployment. For example, the Census Bureau estimates that 3.6 million people would have been lifted above the poverty line if food stamps were counted - a number that would have reduced the 2009 poverty rate from the official 14.3 percent to 13.2 percent.
The 2009 figures come from the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey, which gathers information from 3 million households. The data cover geographic areas with populations of 65,000 or more.