WASHINGTON – As the recession shook Americans' confidence last year, new figures show that weddings for people 18 and older dropped to the lowest point in over a hundred years.
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 the number of people getting married 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.
Marriage rates have been declining for years due to rising divorce and an increase in unmarried couples living together. Demographers say the current downturn may now be causing more younger adults to postpone marriage as many struggle to find work and resist making long-term commitments.
"Given the scope of the recent recession, many more couples are likely to choose cohabitation over marriage in the coming years," said Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau.
On the positive side: Americans spent about 36 minutes fewer minutes in the office per week and were stuck in less traffic, although the reason was largely because millions of them had lost jobs or were scraping by with part-time work.
The government revealed that the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year by the largest margin ever, 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 â€” those making more than $100,000 each year â€” received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by the bottom 20 percent of wage-earners who fell 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.
Average commute times edged lower to 25.1 minutes, the lowest since 2006, as fewer people headed to the office in the morning. The share of people who carpooled also declined from 10.7 percent to 10 percent, while commuters who took public transportation were unchanged at 5 percent.
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.
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.