Urban Wire Unemployment from a Child's Perspective
Julia B. Isaacs
Display Date

Millions of Americans lost their jobs during the Great Recession, and millions are still unemployed. As a result, millions of children have experienced the hardship of parental job loss. An analysis published Monday finds that 6.2 million children lived in families with at least one unemployed parent in an average month of 2012. And almost half (45 percent) of these children, 2.8 million, are living with parents who have been looking for work for six months or longer.

One of the earliest signs children suffer after parental job loss is declining school performance. Several studies have documented lower math scores, poorer school attendance, and a higher risk of being held back among children whose parents have lost their jobs. Some negative effects can last into adulthood, with one study finding that low-income youth whose parents lose their jobs have lower rates of college attendance  and another finding that boys whose fathers lost their jobs when plants closed in the early 1980s had annual earnings about 9 percent lower than similar children whose fathers did not experience such job losses.

Children with unemployed parents live throughout the country. According to the most recent data, nearly 1 million (976,000) of them live in California, reflecting both the size of the state’s population and the severity of its economic problems. More than a1 in 10 children in California (11 percent) live with at least one unemployed parent. Other states with particularly high incidence of children living with unemployed parents include Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia, as shown in the map below.

While the depth of the problem varies across states, all saw a sharp rise in children affected by unemployment during the recession, and little improvement since then. For example, the most recent data show that a dozen states have more than twice as many children with unemployed parents in 2012 than they did five years ago: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. (For growth rates in other states, see appendix tables in full brief).

Some metropolitan areas have particularly high numbers of children living with unemployed parents, including Modesto, California (20 percent); Bakersfield, California (17 percent); Riverside-San Bernadino-Ontario, California (16 percent); and Toledo, Ohio (15 percent). At the other extreme, only 3 percent of the children in Des Moines-West Des Moines, Iowa are living with an unemployed parent (see appendix tables of full brief for rates across the 100 largest metro areas).

In tomorrow's post I will explore the extent to which children with unemployed parents are covered by unemployment insurance and other safety net programs.

This post was updated to correct the names of the metro areas with the highest and lowest shares of children living with unemployed parents.


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Research Areas Children and youth Child welfare
Tags Children's health and development Economic well-being Child welfare Unemployment and unemployment insurance Kids in context
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center