SANFORD, Fla.—Seventeen-year-old Contessa Skelton learned that her mother had lost her job—for the second time in two years—as they stood in the parking lot outside her dentist’s office.
Her mom told her the bad news. Together, they cried a little. “I was shocked,” Tessa says, about one year later. “I didn’t know what to think at first.”
Her mother assured her that everything would be OK. Still, it was hard for Tessa to believe that after her mother’s employer, Remington Colleges, had given her all of one hour to clean out her desk—along with just a week of severance pay. Her mother had lost her previous, long-standing job at GE Capital less than two years earlier.
The unemployment rate in Florida that July 2011 still hovered above 10 percent. No one was having an easy time getting or keeping a stable, well-paying job, even people who had a college degree or had worked for a major corporation.
High school had already been a rocky time, financially and socially, for Tessa. She had learned to watch her money constantly, incessantly even, thanks to her mom’s bouts with unemployment. Did she have enough for gas? What about lunch, if she wanted to go off campus for pizza with her friends? She also needed money for a swim-team uniform and dues for dance competitions. And that summer, just before her senior year, the expenses of applying to college loomed large. If college was a ticket to prosperity, then just getting in line to get in—paying for the SATs and sending in applications—cost hundreds of dollars.
Tessa already worked 20-plus hours a week at a pizza place called Hungry Howie’s, where she made pies, took orders over the phone, and worked the register for $7.85 an hour. Now, she’d need to keep up her hours (along with her grades) during her senior year if she wanted any pocket money. For someone from her solidly middle-class background, it was a weird feeling to worry so much about money.
Yet, Tessa’s story is hardly a unique coming-of-age moment. At the height of the economic crisis, in 2010, more than 8 million children and teenagers in the United States lived with an unemployed parent, according to the Brookings Institution. That’s one of every nine kids, living in the shadow of the most severe wave of job losses since the Great Depression.
Their experiences and worldviews, although still coming into focus, are part of the trickle-down effect of the jobless recovery. The Obama administration says that the economy is slowly improving, and unemployment has fallen below 8 percent; but for many children and teens of jobless parents, the experience of the Great Recession lives on and will probably stay with them for years.
“We need to think of this recession as a two-generation phenomenon. We focus on tracking job losses with the parent generation, but you rarely think about what will happen to the kids,” says Ariel Kalil, a psychology professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago.
For Tessa, the financial stress was something she didn’t like to discuss with her peers. In fact, she felt like she couldn’t even relate to one of her oldest pals (whom she had known since they were 4) during the months when her mom was unemployed and they lived on $275 a week in unemployment benefits, occasional checks from family members, and free food from local pantries. Tessa used her own money for gasoline, school fees, clothing, and anything else she needed, while her mom ran through her savings and took out a home-equity loan.
“I always keep hope and keep fighting.... I know if I stick to it, I can achieve greatness.”—Dasia Isom, 17
“I separated myself from friends who cared more about popularity and who were flaky,” Tessa says. “Lots of their parents just give them money.”
The gulf between her life and her classmates’ seemed particularly stark, she says, when she wanted to join a school club known for its parties and formal events. “You had to dress up for all of them,” Tessa remembers. She didn’t have enough money for the dues or the outfits. “Even $5 is a lot right now,” she says. “I probably lost friends.”
The three years of high school when her mom was in and out of work did build her character, Tessa is quick to say. She’s more careful with money now—grateful for what she owns and what she has accomplished. She and her mom remain close. (Her dad, who offers little financial support, lives in Tennessee.)
But the tough times also radically shifted the way she thinks about her finances, career, goals, and friendships. Today, there’s an entire generation of young people who have watched their parents get laid off, accept lower-paying jobs, move around for work, and, in some cases, lose their homes.
Economists, sociologists, and politicians know little about this group in real time; their knowledge is limited to what they can extrapolate from research and anecdotes from previous recessions. And young people like Tessa are only now starting to realize that their families’ long brushes with unemployment have made them different than others.
This article appears in the October 13, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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