Burger flippers, babysitting grandmas show recession lives on

Posted Sept. 23, 2011, at 6:50 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 23, 2011, at 11:27 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Americans flipped more burgers, rented more homes, used less-expensive heating fuel and asked for more government help last year, the U.S. Census Bureau says.

More people worked fewer hours for less money. Fewer couples got married and more grandparents cared for their grandchildren. Fewer children attended preschool and more adults enrolled in graduate school than in 2009.

An annual survey released Thursday, coupled with census data last week showing the highest poverty rates and lowest incomes in a generation, offers a vivid portrait of how people are struggling to cope after the worst recession of their lifetimes. Washington lawmakers remain deadlocked over how to respond.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” said Elmi Osman, 38, of Clarkston, Ga., who began driving a taxicab after being laid off from his job at Hertz in 2008. “I don’t have a choice. I have an associate’s degree in engineering, and I cannot find another job.”

The data were released as part of the American Community Survey, an annual questionnaire sent to 3 million homes that replaces the census “long form,” which yielded results once a decade. The annual figures are used to guide the distribution of more than $400 billion in state and federal spending.

The figures show that the 8.8 million American households earning less than $10,000 annually remained almost twice the number of those earning more than $200,000. The gap between rich and poor was widest in the District of Columbia, New York and Connecticut, and was lowest in Utah.

The number of households receiving cash public assistance rose 9.3 percent, to 3.28 million last year from 3 million in 2009. That doesn’t include the 1 million additional households receiving Social Security income, or the 1.9 million extra households participating in the food-stamp program. About two of every three new food-stamp recipients earned more than the U.S. poverty rate of $11,139, or $22,314 for a family of four.

More than 13.6 million households, about one of every eight, needed government help to put food on the table in 2010, an increase of 16.2 percent from 2009. Nevada added 31,000 food- stamp recipients, a jump of 48.4 percent. The largest numerical rise was in Florida, which added 204,000 — more than 10 percent of all new food-stamp households.

Some pain was even felt in corporate boardrooms: There were almost 96,000 fewer Americans employed as top executives.

At the same time, the number of food-preparation workers grew by 97,000. And about 50,000 more households made at least $200,000 last year.

“If history is repeating itself, it would be no surprise that the rich are getting richer,” said Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Coming out of a recession, poverty frequently continues to rise.

“We’re stalling when we need to be growing,” he said.

The White House underlined that point last month, when it projected that the nation’s unemployment rate, which has hovered at or above 9 percent for more than two years, will be stuck there next year amid sluggish economic growth.

The number of workers fell 1.7 million between 2009 and 2010, while the percentage of the employed population dropped to 66.6 percent from 68.2 percent, the census figures show.

The average American, who worked 38.4 hours a week in 2009, was on the job for 38.3 in 2010. Hours worked by men fell to an average of 40.7 hours from 40.9; women dropped to 35.6 from 35.7.

“The work isn’t what it used to be,” said Steve Reeves, 45, a heating and air conditioning technician in Atlanta. “Even if you work, you’re not getting 40 hours.”

Reeves, who has had his job for 25 years, held onto it through the worst of the downturn. Still, his hours dropped and haven’t climbed back up. “The recession isn’t over,” he said.

The National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the recession, which began in December 2007, ended in June 2009.

Those who still have jobs are taking slightly longer to get there: The average commute climbed to 25.3 minutes, an increase of a dozen seconds. The percentage of Americans who drove to work alone climbed to 75.6 percent from 75.1 percent. Fewer people carpooled, took mass transit, biked or walked. The longest average commutes were in Maryland, where it took 31.8 minutes, and New York, at 31.3 minutes.

The collapse of the housing market triggered the recession, and census figures show that median home values continued to fall, to $179,900, down 2.9 percent from $185,200. And more people lived in less-expensive housing. Texas added more than 39,300 mobile homes, roughly 80 percent of the almost 50,000 units added in 2010.

About 900,000 housing units were added in 2010, an increase of 0.8 percent. The number of owners grew by 0.04 percent to 74.9 million. The number of renters climbed to 39.7 million, or 2.4 percent. The District of Columbia had the highest percentage of renters, at 57.5 percent of all housing, followed by New York at 45.8 percent. West Virginia had the highest percentage of owners, at 74.7 percent.

People cut back. They dropped oil or kerosene heat in favor of electricity or utility-provided gas. There were 2.4 million households that used wood as a primary heating fuel. Slightly more than 15 percent of Vermont households used wood, the highest percentage in the nation. About 1.1 million households, more than one-third in California, reported using no fuel at all for heat.

The percentage of women who have never been married climbed to 29 percent from 28.6 percent in 2009, an increase the census bureau called “significant.” The figures were lowest in Wyoming, where 20.7 percent of women haven’t been married, and highest in the District of Columbia, at 55.8 percent, and New York, at 34.8 percent.

The number of grandparents living with their grandchildren rose to 7 million in 2010, from almost 6.7 million in 2009. Three percent of all grandparents in Mississippi took care of their grandchildren. Only 0.6 percent of Vermont grandparents were responsible for theirs.

Almost 193,400 fewer children were enrolled in preschool last year, while almost 1.2 million more adults attended undergraduate or graduate school.

Washington, D.C., had the highest percentage of people with a college degree, at 50.1 percent, and graduate or professional degrees, at 26.9 percent.

Education was no guarantee of economic success for Osman, the Georgia cabdriver struggling to scratch out a living.

“When I started, I could make $300 to $400 in an average eight-hour day,” he said, standing in a line of 13 cabs waiting for fares outside a downtown Atlanta hotel. “Then it went to $300, to $250, to $200. Now an average day is $100 for 15 to 16 hours.”

He’s sticking with it, because he has to, he said.

“I’m doing this to survive and pay my rent.”

Newkirk reported from Atlanta.

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