Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor who specializes in poverty, noted skyrocketing college tuition costs, which come as many strapped state governments cut support for public universities. Federal spending on Pell Grants to low-income students has risen somewhat, but covers a diminishing share of the actual cost of attending college.

"The elderly have a comprehensive safety net that most adults, especially young adults, lack," Danziger said.

Paul Taylor, director of Pew Social & Demographic Trends and co-author of the analysis, said the report shows that today's young adults are starting out in life in a very tough economic position. "If this pattern continues, it will call into question one of the most basic tenets of the American Dream â¿¿ the idea that each generation does better than the one that came before," he said.

Other findings:

â¿¿Households headed by someone under age 35 had their median net worth reduced by 27 percent in 2009 as a result of unsecured liabilities, mostly a combination of credit card debt and student loans. No other age group had anywhere near that level of unsecured liability acting as a drag on net worth; the next closest was the 35-44 age group, at 10 percent.

â¿¿Wealth inequality is increasing within all age groups. Among the younger-age households, those living in debt have grown the fastest while the share of households with net worth of at least $250,000 edged up slightly to 2 percent. Among the older-age households, the share of households worth at least $250,000 rose to 20 percent from 8 percent in 1984; those living in debt were largely unchanged at 8 percent.

On Monday, the Census Bureau planned to release new 2010 figures that will show a big increase in poverty for Americans 65 or older due to rising out-of-pocket medical expenses. Currently, about 9 percent of older Americans fall below the poverty line, based on the official definition put out in September, but that number did not factor in everyday costs such as health care and commuting.

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