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Census figures suggest U.S. is in fragile economic recovery

WASHINGTON -- More young adults are leaving their parents' homes to take a chance with college or a job. Across the nation, people are on the move again after putting their lives on hold and staying put. Once-sharp declines in births are leveling off, and poverty is slowing.

A new snapshot of census data provides sociological backup for what economic indicators were already suggesting: The nation is in a tentative, fragile recovery.

"We may be seeing the beginning of the American family's recovery from the Great Recession," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

He pointed in particular to the upswing in mobility and to the increase in young men moving out of their parents' homes, both signs that more young adults are testing job prospects.

"It could be the modest number of new jobs or simply the belief that the worst is over," Cherlin said.

The 2011 Census figures released Thursday show progress in an economic recovery that technically began in mid-2009. The annual survey, supplemented with unpublished government figures as of March 2012, covers a year in which U.S. unemployment fell modestly from 9.6 percent to 8.9 percent.

Not all is well, however. The jobless rate remains high at 8.1 percent.

While housing sales have gained recently, homeownership dropped for a fifth straight year last year, to 64.6 percent, the lowest in more than a decade. The trend is due to stringent financing rules and a shift to renting.

More Americans than ever are turning to food stamps, while residents in housing that is considered "crowded" held steady at 1 percent, tied for the highest since 2003.

Fresh economic data released Thursday added to the mixed picture.

The Conference Board's Index of Leading Economic Indicators, designed to forecast economic activity, dipped 0.1 percent in August after rising 0.5 percent in July and dropping 0.5 percent in June.

And the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell only slightly last week.

Taken as a whole, however, the census figures, which track changing patterns in everyday life, provide the latest evidence of a stabilizing economy, analysts say.

Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University, said the data point to a "fragile recovery," with the economy still at risk of falling back into recession.

That will depend in part on who is president and whether Congress averts a "fiscal cliff" of deep government spending cuts and higher taxes in January.

"Given the situation in the world economy, we are doing better than many other countries," he said. "Government policies remain critical."

The census figures also show slowing growth in the foreign-born population, which increased to 40.4 million, or 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Last year's immigration increase of 400,000 people was the lowest in a decade, reflecting a minimal gain of Latinos after many Mexicans already in the U.S. opted to return home.

Some 11 million people are estimated to be in the U.S. illegally.

The bulk of new immigrants are higher-skilled workers from Asian countries such as China and India, contributing to increases in the foreign-born population in California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey.

As a whole, Americans were slowly finding ways to get back on the move.

About 12 percent of the nation's population, or 36.5 million, moved to a new home, up from a record low of 11.6 percent in 2011.

Among young adults 25 to 29, the most mobile age group, moves also increased to 24.6 percent from a low of 24.1 percent in the previous year.

Longer-distance moves, typically for those seeking new careers in other regions of the country, rose from 3.4 percent to 3.8 percent.