When Parents are Unemployed, Children Suffer

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Unemployment Line

Job loss significantly impacts children; federal programs could do more

As jobless rates remain high, federal and state support systems could do more to help the children of the unemployed, who face significant health and educational impacts, according to a recent report released by the Urban Institute and advocacy group First Focus. The report, “Unemployment from a Child’s Perspective, ” also looks at how many children are affected by parental job loss and what programs are currently in place to help.

According to the report, last year, 6.2 million children were living with an unemployed parent and 3.4 million children were living with at least one underemployed parent  (i.e., working fewer hours than they wanted). Although these children come from diverse family backgrounds, some demographic groups are overrepresented. Julia Isaacs, the report’s author and a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, found African-American children were two times more likely to be living with unemployed parents than white children. Children in single parent households were also more likely to have an unemployed parent.

The impact of parental job loss on kids is significant, Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, said. If a family’s income falls below the poverty line, they may have trouble providing safe child care, nutritious food and access to learning opportunities that promote healthy development. If families live or move into unsafe, crowded areas, children are exposed to more noise, air pollution and crime—also leading to long term negative consequences, according to the report.

“Family dynamics also change in ways that the research finds are negative for children,” Isaacs explained.  Research going back to the Great Depression has found that after a parent loses a job, he or she is more irritable, more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to be involved in intra-family conflict. The result, according to the report, are more punitive and less supportive parenting styles.   

Youth living in homes with fewer financial resources and increased psychological stress are less likely to enroll in post-secondary school programs and more likely to be lower wage earners as adults, Isaacs said.  They may also have lower math scores, have poorer school attendance, repeat a grade, or be suspended or expelled, the report said.  

Adolescents who see their parents not succeeding in the labor market may be less inclined to seek out employment, Isaacs added. The number of unemployed youth (ages 16 to 24) increased dramatically during the recent recession—rising from 10.8 percent in July 2007 to 19.1 percent in July 2010, according to the report.

Although there are federal and state support systems in place, they could do more, Isaacs said. Unemployment insurance covers just a fraction of the people who are unemployed, she explained. And according to the report, the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included incentives for states to modernize their state unemployment insurance programs, expanding coverage to low-income wage earners, part-time workers and working mothers, but by 2011, coverage rates for these groups remained low.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or food stamps) is another critically important component to the safety net for children, according to Isaacs. Yet the current budget proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives would cut the program significantly, Lesley said.  

The economy is recovering but it’s still far from where we’d like to see things for many parents and children, he added. Social safety net programs, like unemployment insurance and food stamps, are critically important for parents still looking for work, he explained. Without them, families and children suffer disproportionately.

Jessica R. Kendall, JD is co-founder of Child & Family Policy Associates, a Maryland-based consulting firm, and has authored several books, articles and practice guides on child protection and juvenile justice issues.