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.
During our conversation, she sounded chipper, idealistic, and practical, even though her mother could not find work and her father was serving time in prison. She’d learned lessons from all of this, she said, especially the importance of earning a college degree and starting early to think about a real career: lessons reinforced every hour she sat at the reception desk at the unemployment office.
“It just makes me want to get on with my life and further my education, so I don’t have to go through the same thing,” she says. “The more education people have, the easier is it to get jobs.”
This tracks with the employment data about the Great Recession. Although the overall jobless rate remains high (higher than any politician would like), education marks a clear dividing line. People without college degrees suffer from an unemployment rate twice as high as those with bachelor’s degrees, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.