Poverty and Career Opportunities for Young Adults: The Census Poverty Report Dials Up the Urgency—And Congress Provides New Opportunities

Earlier this month, the Census Bureau reported on 2013 poverty rates. The good news is that the poverty rates for all Americans and for children specifically declined.  The bad news is that the declines didn’t quite bring us back to 2007, before the recession—and that the 2007 rates were unacceptable. Specifically, in 2013, children remain the poorest Americans and young adults are the poorest among adults, with almost one in five of both groups living in poverty. Because poverty early in life and early in a school-to-work trajectory can have long-lasting consequences, these high rates create great risks for our future.

The facts about child poverty, while shocking, are widely known: one in five children, 22 percent of young children, three in ten Hispanic children, and almost four in ten black children, live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level (about $18,500 for a family of three in 2013).  Research shows that children who experience poverty, particularly in their earliest years, are more likely to be poor as adults, get less education, and become parents too soon

But the high level of poverty among young adults ages 18-24 is less well-known. As with young children, the overall rate of almost one in five masks even worse outcomes for young people of color. Almost one-third of black young adults live in poverty, and their poverty rate actually increased by 1.7 percentage points from 2012 to 2013.

For these young adults, living in poverty makes it harder to access high-quality education and training programs. When they do enroll, they are more likely to have to work excessive hours, prolonging their time to a degree and increasing the risk they won’t complete. In addition, young adults are more likely than older adults to have jobs with low wages and without key elements of quality, such as paid leave or consistent schedules. These characteristics of work can produce an impossible cycle: young people can’t obtain good, steady jobs without schooling—and they can’t manage schooling without steady jobs. This leaves them dangerously vulnerable for the future.

Young adults who are also parents experience extremely high poverty rates that affect their future prospects and those of their children. Among families headed by a young adult with a child under 18, the poverty rate is 40 percent. However, young adults with children make up a relatively small share of all poor families, which are mostly headed by adults in their late 20s or beyond.

The challenges these young adults face in raising children and starting a career are central to today’s postsecondary education landscape. Young adults are among the more than 30 percent of students attending community colleges who are parents, and more than 40 percent of student parents work full-time to provide for themselves and their family.

What can we do? Of course, the list is long, starting with improving young people’s lives before they reach adulthood through policies that improve family circumstances, early childhood programs, and K-12 investments. Community-wide strategies that target the particular needs of young people, especially young people of color growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, are also important. But the big surprise may be recent Congressional actions with the potential to make a difference—if federal, state, and local leaders seize them with a sense of urgency.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014

Just four months ago, Congress passed with virtually unanimous bipartisan support the first reauthorization of workforce training programs in 16 years. This reauthorization, known as Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), provides a new tool kit that enables state and local workforce leaders to:

  • Increase the focus on serving vulnerable workers, including out-of-school youth and young adults who have limited skills, lack work experience, and face other barriers to workforce success (including community-wide barriers, such as a concentration of poverty);
  • Expand education and training options, including career pathways, to help workers advance in their careers;
  • Help young adults (and older adults) “earn while they learn”—allowing low-income workers to support their families and also gain skills through on-the-job training and similar strategies; and
  • Line up opportunities across core programs, including youth and adult programs, adult education, and workforce development.

CLASP’s analysis of key provisions highlights the many opportunities provided by the law and also notes that seizing these opportunities will depend on state and local leaders, who have the chance to move aggressively to improve existing programs, as well as federal agency staff who can support positive moves through technical assistance, guidance, and regulation. We’ll be working closely with partners at all levels and in the advocacy world to identify and share lessons and promising practices, and we urge the broader anti-poverty and youth communities to join in. Given the jolt of urgency provided by the Census findings, the time is now.

Two-Generational Supports Through Home Visiting, Early Head Start, and Child Care

Recent Congressional actions also provide some opportunities for “two-generational” strategies that can help young parents and their young children—who, as the Census report shows, are at deep risk. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program connects high-risk families with voluntary home visiting services, which help parents acquire skills to promote their children’s development and connect to necessary services, such as health care or community resources. The MIECHV program expires in April 2015—and it urgently needs to be extended further. The Early Head Start–child care partnerships, which were funded by Congress as part of the 2014 budget agreement and are about to be awarded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, support high-quality care and education for babies and toddlers, an enormous need right now for low-income parents, especially those who work. And before leaving for the break, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), for the first time in 18 years, which the Senate is expected to take up on its return in November. This bipartisan legislation includes health and safety improvements as well as provisions that will help support the stability of both parents’ work and children’s care—particularly valuable for low-wage workers who now are too often thrown into a cycle of instability by shifting work hours and overly rigid child care rules.

None of these policy opportunities meets the scale of the need outlined in the Census report. In particular, Congress needs to go beyond policy to budget and make available the resources required to fully achieve the goals of WIOA and CCDBG and to address deeply damaging rates of poverty and distress. But the opportunities nonetheless represent important, bipartisan, and practical next steps. Advocates, state and local officials, and federal policymakers and regulators should seize the moment to achieve positive reform.