“I have a feeling that these kids will always be identifiable as the kids of parents who faced these problems,” says Ann Huff Stevens, an economics professor and the director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California (Davis). “Even if we do get the recovery going, the effects have already happened to the kids, and from what we know, these effects can be pretty substantial and negative.”
CAUGHT IN A RIPTIDE
Members of this shadow generation have already started out their young-adult lives with a distinct disadvantage, especially if their parents did not have a college degree or were already struggling to stay within striking distance of the middle class. Children of the unemployed are 15 percent more likely to repeat a grade than their peers whose parents held on to stable jobs, a 2009 study by Stevens and economist Jessamyn Schaller found. They are more likely to live with adults whose health is affected by a job loss. Life expectancy drops by 12 to 18 months for people who are unemployed for a long stretch of time, according to a study by economist Till Marco von Wachter and Daniel Sullivan, the director of research and an executive vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Worse, their families may never recover financially; even 15 to 20 years later, losing a job can translate to as much as $140,000 less in lifetime wages, according to a 2009 paper by von Wachter, Jae Song, and Joyce Manchester. For many families, a job loss also nudges them into poverty. From August 2008 to August 2009, Brookings reports that the number of children on food stamps jumped by 3.4 million.
Adulthood doesn’t necessarily offer relief, either, for the children of the unemployed: They tend to have a hard time in the job market. A 2005 study showed that children whose fathers lost a job during the recession in the early 1980s earned 9 percent less in wages during their lifetimes than children whose parents held on to their jobs. They were also more likely to end up on unemployment or some form of social assistance as adults.
The research says nothing, however, about the emotional trauma that comes from a parent losing work in a bleak economic climate: the possibility that the family may be forced to move; the lack of resources to invest in education; and, in the short run, the amount of quality time that overstressed parents can spend with their children.
Many parents who lose their jobs—particularly fathers, Kalil says—also experience an identity crisis about their role in the family, especially if they are unable to earn money for a long period.
Such below-the-surface issues are hard to identify, sitting as they do at a squishy intersection of economic policy, the labor market, and private family dynamics. “The question is whether these are knowable things,” says Schaller, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Arizona. “If we know your parents losing their jobs makes you more likely to drop out of high school, what we don’t know is why. Is it stress, or health outcomes, or other things going on in families?”
These factors, even if they are hard to sort out, put the children of the unemployed at risk of falling behind their peers at a time when the gap between the lower and upper incomes in American society continues to widen. It puts teens like Tessa at a disadvantage before they’ve even had the chance to prove themselves in college or the workplace, regardless of the tough life lessons that their parents’ unemployment imparted to them.
“My biggest thing that I learned was how much you rely on little things you don’t really notice,” Tessa says.
Few teenagers understand the daily life of the unemployed better than 17-year-old Dasia Isom, who lives it at work and at home.
By day, she answers phones at one of FloridaWorks’ employment centers, a brightly painted, low-slung building off Highway 25 in Gainesville, Fla., where unemployed people receive job counseling and training and get the chance to use the center’s free computers.
By night, Dasia returns to the home she shares with her 11-year-old sister and her mother, who has been out of a job for a few months. Her mom lost her position as a home health care aide, Dasia says, after she hurt her back lifting an elderly patient and could no longer report to work.
For now, the family lives on unemployment benefits, food stamps, and help from her aunt in paying the utility bill. Dasia and her mother share a cell phone to keep the costs low. Dasia tries to help out financially with the $7.57 an hour she earns, but her mom often refuses the cash. “She always tells me the bills are her responsibility.”
Dasia and I first connected over the phone in early July. She had just graduated from high school and harbored big plans. She wanted to enroll in community college to keep her education costs minimal. Then, eventually, she said, she wanted to join the Air Force, attend medical school on the military’s dime, and work as a doctor on an Air Force base or on the front lines—a future she envisioned as both helpful to society and stable. “I could do 20 years until retirement and still get out when I’m 37,” she said then.