Meet America’s New Poverty Class – the Millennials

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Does America have a new poverty class that leans closer to Charles Dickens than it does to Charles Darwin?

OK, maybe “survival of the fittest” doesn’t have much to do with it, or at least it isn’t the most compelling reason that younger Americans have fallen into the poverty class. After all, the “bad luck” generation hit their early 20’s in the teeth of an economic gale, which for them, hasn’t really abated.

But the data doesn’t lie, and it does support the notion that younger U.S. adults are sinking into poverty. 

Right now, the U.S. unemployment rate for the age 20-24 demographic stands at 13.5%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 8.1% for the general population. 

Besides the larger realization among Millennials – and many economists – that between automation and outsourcing, good job opportunities are scarce, younger adults are moving back into their parent’s house because they’re broke.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.9 million young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 lived with their parents by 2011, up from 4.7 million in 2008. The agency also says that 45% of those “double-upper’s” generate incomes that are below the poverty lines.

But the capper on the jug could be a new report from Fort Worth, Texas-based Think Finance, an online financial products provider.  The survey of 640 U.S. Millennials reveals that more of them are using purportedly downscale financial products like pre-paid credit cards and pay day loans – and are actually ‘satisfied” with the experience.

What’s particularly newsworthy is that the younger set may be establishing new norms for future generations of U.S. financial consumers. Think Finance says Millennials across most income spectrums have turned to what the firm calls “alternative financial services”, and that they use “emergency forms of cash” and consider those alternatives “an important financial tool”.

OK, does that mean that formerly frowned upon financial products like payday loans and pawn shops have risen in stature, or does it mean that Millennials are faring so poorly these days that they have to take a path their parents never took – and do so out of financial necessity? 

Think Finance says that such products are a sign of the times, and offer young consumers good value and service.

“Stereotypes that paint users of alternative financial products as poor and uninformed are simply not accurate,” says Ken Rees, CEO of Think Finance. “This study confirms that young people across the spectrum have a need for the convenience, utility and flexibility that alternative financial services provide.”

The survey seems to confirm that sentiment. Sixty-two percent of respondents say emergency cash services are “important”. And 83% said they actually had a decent experience using things like prepaid cards and check-cashing services. Here are some other takeaways from the study:

  • Prepaid debit cards – 51% of those making less than $25,000 in annual income reported using prepaid debit cards within the last year. The percentage was the same for those who earned $50,000-$74,999.
  • Check cashing services – 34% of respondents who earn less than $25,000 reported using check cashing services, while almost as many in the $50,000 – $74,999 range (29%) turned to check cashers.
  • Rent-to-own stores – 15% of respondents making less than $25,000 and 17% of those who earn $50,000-$74,999 reported using rent-to-own stores.
  • Pawn shops – 29% of respondents who earn less than $25,000 reported using pawn shops compared to 21% of respondents making $50,000 – $74,999.

Perhaps emergency cash products are a sign of the new normal, and that Millennials at all income levels are simply making the best of a bad situation and availing themselves of financial services products that previous generations might have sneered at.

But with record high student loan debt, and $16.5 trillion in debt laid on their doorstep, courtesy of Uncle Sam and tens of millions of entitlement-utilizing older Americans, the financial future for Millennials isn’t any brighter.

Increasingly, a cash-starved 20-something has got to do what a cash-starved 20-something has got to do. If that means using pre-paid cards and pawn shops, then welcome to the “new normal” for one of the unluckiest generations in American history.

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