One of every six American children has a parent that is either unemployed or underemployed, according to a new study from First Focus and the Urban Institute. Overall, 6.2 million children live in homes where at least one parent is unemployed; the total rises to 12.1 million when underemployment is included too. While that number has decreased slightly in the last two years, it is still substantially higher than pre-recession levels, the report found:
The effects of parental unemployment on children are far-reaching: children with at least one unemployed parent are more likely to fall into poverty, especially if their parents are among the long-term unemployed. Unemployment is linked to lower math scores and poorer school attendance, and parental job loss increases the risk of a child being held back in school by 15 percent. Low-income students whose parents lose jobs are less likely to attend college, and one study found that boys whose fathers lost jobs earned 9 percent less over their lifetimes than boys whose fathers did not.
One problem that exacerbates the effects of parental unemployment is the weakness of America’s social safety net, which ranks among the stingiest in the industrialized world. More families with unemployed parents qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) than do unemployment insurance, even though SNAP is a less beneficial program. As the report states, “in July 2012, SNAP monthly benefits averaged about $278 per household, less than the average weekly benefit of $299 for unemployment benefits (the monthly equivalent of $1,286)”:
That situation is only deteriorating further, as eight states have cut unemployment insurance programs below the typical 26 weeks. That costs jobless workers access to federal benefits as well, since the federal program is partially dependent on state eligibility standards. The 1996 welfare reform law made TANF less likely to help children in need. And SNAP has been the subject of cuts since it was expanded in 2009, though those cuts have so far been avoided. All in all, America’s social safety net isn’t robust enough to help families — and especially children — who need it most.
While the safety net is important, what would really help the children affected by parental unemployment are policies to help boost economic growth. Congress has instead focused on reining in deficits and cutting the debt. Not only has that misguided focus slowed down the recovery, it has put the programs that help them when the economy can’t on the chopping block too.