As the United States struggles to emerge from one of the worst economic downturns in history, the devastating effects of long-term high unemployment and increasing poverty – particularly on children – are coming into view. New data paints a stark picture of how the Great Recession has impacted young people, their families, communities and their education.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the recession has essentially wiped away the significant gains made for children during the 1990s. More than 2.4 million have fallen below the poverty line since 2008, returning to a level not seen in twenty years. About 42 percent, or 31 million, now live in low-income families.
“Kids have really been hit hard by the current crisis,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and data at the Casey Foundation. “Nearly 8 million children lived with at least one parent who was actively seeking employment but was unemployed in 2010. This is double the number in 2007, just three years earlier. The news about the number of children who were affected by foreclosure in the United States is also very troubling because these economic challenges greatly hinder the well-being of families and the nation.”
In a study released in June, the National Bureau of Education noted the direct correlation between job losses and decreasing student test scores – especially the high-stake test scores that have become synonymous with No Child Left Behind.
Children Left Behind: The Effects of Statewide Job Loss on Student Achievement cites the economic forces – wild fluctuations in the stock market, austerity measures, and globalization – that can cripple communities and hamper student achievement. These are factors that are obviously beyond the control of teachers and school administrators.
“In this era of greatly increased focus on school accountability for student performance,” according to the report, “education policymakers and leaders should be cognizant of the external factors that can negatively influence student achievement.”
The researchers compiled the data from federal Mass Layoff Statistics and fourth- and eighth-graders test scores from the National Center for Education Statistics. They found that not only do job losses decrease test scores, but they also affect all students – and not just those whose parents lose their jobs.
This is due to the fact that students with peers whose parents have lost jobs can experience a less positive classroom interaction, which is related to lower growth in children’s academic achievement over time. Also, when a community suffers from an economic downturn, that community experiences structural changes that will affect all children regardless of whether their families face unemployment.
“The stress and anxiety of losing your job is actually not so much greater than the stress of worrying about losing your job,” said Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University and one of the authors of the study. “When there is a lot of job loss going on, everyone in the community gets very stressed out. They get depressed, they get anxious.”
Both reports underscore the urgency that lawmakers on all levels of government refocus the economic debate away from severe budget-cutting measures to solutions that will protect the most vulnerable citizens and help put people back to work. The Casey Foundation’s Speer said programs that help the poor, from childcare subsidies and health coverage to the Earned Income Tax Credit, must be spared the budget ax.
“We can’t forget about children as we make decisions in the fiscal crisis,” Speer said. “We can’t cut the programs thinking that eventually we can put money right back into them because … childhood is a very short time. The Casey Foundation urges policymakers to focus on ensuring the next generation of children is healthy, educated, and prepared to compete in a global economy.”
Will Congress listen? Soon a new “super-committee,” charged with cutting an additional $1 trillion from the federal budget, will convene on Capitol Hill. The National Education Association (NEA) is urging lawmakers to take a stand against additional cuts to education, Medicaid, Social Security, and Medicare and support tax fairness.
“The students we serve come to school every day more worried, more at risk, and more liable to fall through the cracks,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Legislators need to stop looking to children, working families, and seniors to sacrifice. It’s time to put the families on Main Street ahead of the special interests of Wall Street and make billionaires and big corporations pay their fair share.”