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 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.