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Parents Lose Jobs, and Children Suffer

Unemployment is a child welfare issue.

The economic tsunami we now call the Great Recession hit families in the U.S. and most of the world hard. The grim statistics on job loss, home foreclosures, and increased poverty are well known. Economic recovery is underway, but involuntary joblessness remains stubbornly high. Many employed adults are working part-time, without benefits, and for lower wages. As a result, children more than ever are living in poverty. In 2010, 11 percent of U.S. children had at least one unemployed parent. A shocking 42 percent (31 million children) were living in families below the poverty line.

Losing a job not only means a sharp drop in income and economic security for a family. Social scientists have tracked the devastating impact on parents’ physical and mental health and their family relationships. Job loss increases marital conflict, ups the risk of divorce, and leads to more ineffective parenting, sometimes too harsh, sometimes too neglectful.  Children pay a severe price for the hard economic times their parents endure.

What does the research tell us about how job loss impacts children?

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*Education suffers.  When a parent loses a job, their children are more likely to repeat a grade, be suspended or expelled, or drop out of high school. For high school grads, they are less likely to go on to any post-secondary education. This is no surprise given soaring college costs and the credit crunch that a jobless parent faces. For those who do make it to college, worry about parents’ job insecurity has been shown to lead to lower grades. 

*Job prospects worsen. Parents’ job loss reduces economic mobility for the next generation, locking in economic and social inequality and locking out opportunity. Kids whose parents endure unemployment, especially lasting more than three months, end up as adults earning less and depending more on welfare and other income supports. When parents work hard, do a good job, but nonetheless become unemployed, research suggests that their children may become disillusioned with what’s commonly called the “Protestant work ethic,” the notion that hard work pays.

In families already struggling, children are especially hard hit. In African-American families with children, parents are twice as likely to have job loss and reduced hours if still employed, as compared to their white counterparts. Even with a college degree, African-Americans are more than twice as likely as whites with a similar education to be laid off.  When children perceive that discrimination plays a role in their parents’ job loss, they are more likely to disengage from school, research documents.

*Stress mounts. The stress that an adult feels when laid off becomes family stress. Extended job loss has been shown to increase adolescents’ conflicts with their parents, especially if the teenager is a boy and the father is unemployed. Adolescent girls tend to get less parental supervision, and become more vulnerable to risky behavior like drug use or unprotected sex. Historically, child abuse rates increase during a recession. Among abused children, one study found that in the Great Recession, the severity of that abuse increased when a parent, especially a mother, was unemployed.

There is still much we don’t know. Remarkably little research has focused squarely on how job loss impacts children, especially their emotional and social well being. The voices of children themselves are often missing. However, what we do know amounts to a bleak picture. When policy makers can’t or won’t vigorously address unemployment as a severe threat to our nation’s children, it’s time for us all to speak for them.

Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., is Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University.

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