Whose recession is it, anyway?

The American economy is struggling to emerge from one of the deepest recessions in its history.

With the exception of investment bankers, all Americans have suffered. The human toll, however, has not been universally shared. The lopsided distribution of this suffering is not widely understood, and neither is the direct impact such a violent recession will have on college students.

The suffering has been disproportionately concentrated among the poor. A study by Northeastern University divided Americans into 10 income groups to gauge the effects of the recession. The highest-earning group - households with incomes above $150,000 - has weathered the recession quite nicely, with a meager unemployment rate of 3.2 percent.

While middle-class families have suffered too, America's poorest families have felt the bulk of this recession. For the poor, the effects of this downturn have been cataclysmic. Among those earning $12,499 a year or less, unemployment is at 30.8 percent. For frame of reference, overall unemployment during the Great Depression peaked at 25 percent.

The effects of recession do not only skew along income level, however. More pertinent for college students is the fact that there is a generational divide at play in economic downturns.

A recent article in The Atlantic studied the effects of graduating college during a recession. Not only were starting salaries significantly lower for these unlucky graduates, but this wage gap lingered for years and decades into their careers. When researchers totaled up the wage differences over a career, they found that graduating in a recession is the equivalent of having $100,000 docked from your lifetime earnings.

There are logical reasons for this. One is that the struggle of finding a job in such a highly competitive labor market makes new graduates risk averse. They feel lucky to be employed and become increasingly reluctant to switch jobs even for the sake of career or wage advancement.

Beyond this, there can be repercussions for having to settle for a job you are overqualified for. Even though it is done out of necessity, taking a low-level job out of college can signal to future potential employers that you have low potential. This dampens one's future prospects and wages.

Unemployment is a traumatic experience at any age or income. There are broad social effects that are often overlooked when unemployment is expressed merely as a number: men slipping into depression when they can't find work or marriages that fall apart when husbands cannot meet wives' breadwinner expectations. Unemployment is not merely joblessness, but a deflated sense of worth. Job creation policies are as much about dignity as they are about work.

Yet unemployment seems to do profound financial and psychological damage to the young and the poor. While the United States has returned to fragile growth, unemployment notoriously lags behind the rest of the economy in rebounding from recession.

Presently 9.7 percent, unemployment is about double what has been considered natural and acceptable for a generation. President Barack Obama's budget proposal anticipates high joblessness for years to come where unemployment will not reach pre-recession levels for at least another eight years.

This is the dismal labor market most of us can expect to graduate into. Sure, this makes graduate school or service programs look much more attractive, but everyone else has this idea, so these alternatives become more competitive as well.

Recession is an unequal phenomenon: the rich tend to coast through it, while the poor suffer and the young struggle. While everyone loses from a recession, some lose more than others.

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