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How does unemployment affect children?

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The Middleburg Elementary school fourth grade class of Jean Bonner is seen on February 26, 2009 during a social studies lesson in Middleburg, Va.
KARIN ZEITVOGEL/AFP/Getty Images

The effect of unemployment on individuals is clear: loss of income, housing and lack of career experience. What about the children of the unemployed? 

New studies have begun to focus on the long-term effects on children whose parents have suffered from extended periods of unemployment. Researchers have found that this can lead to poor academic performance, behavior issues and effects that may last for the rest of the child's life. 

"Only recently have we begun to accumulate evidence that these adult job losses can have an impact on child development," said Ariel Kalil, director of the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy at the University of Chicago, on The Daily Circuit Tuesday. "We are finding consistently that it seems to be the father's job loss that had adverse consequences for children."

Kalil said they aren't sure why a father's job loss negatively impacts children more, even if the mother is the primary earner in the home. They are beginning to believe it has to do with how each parent spends that extra time in the home when they lose a job.

"When parents are working, they have less time," she said. "When parents are not working they have more time and the ways in which that time is invested in children makes a difference."

Parental job loss can be detrimental to a child. The National Journal recently wrote about some of the research:

Children of the unemployed are 15 percent more likely to repeat a grade than their peers whose parents held on to stable jobs, a 2009 study by Stevens and economist Jessamyn Schaller found. They are more likely to live with adults whose health is affected by a job loss. Life expectancy drops by 12 to 18 months for people who are unemployed for a long stretch of time, according to a study by economist Till Marco von Wachter and Daniel Sullivan, the director of research and an executive vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Worse, their families may never recover financially; even 15 to 20 years later, losing a job can translate to as much as $140,000 less in lifetime wages, according to a 2009 paper by von Wachter, Jae Song, and Joyce Manchester. For many families, a job loss also nudges them into poverty. From August 2008 to August 2009, Brookings reports that the number of children on food stamps jumped by 3.4 million.

Ann Huff Stevens, director of the economics department and chair of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California - Davis, also joined the discussion. She said there's only so much parents can do to prevent these hardships from effecting children, particularly in lower income families.

"I have no doubt that most parents do try to shield their kids from hardship; I think that's what parents do," she said. "Unfortunately what the facts show is that people who lose a job, particularly in a recession, may see their family income fall by 15 percent or more for the next 10 to 20 years. It's a large, permanent shock... You can't make up those resources or paper over the stress that's going to cause in a family."

On the blog, Andrea reflected on her experience as a child of an unemployed parent:

My dad was unemployed much of the 1980s, and I would agree that it had a major impact on my aspirations and perception of what opportunities were available to me. I had a very clear, though unspoken, understanding that I was not allowed to cost my family money. I didn't participate in sports, I didn't ask for clothes, I didn't even ask to participate in school ski trips or scout travel programs. I remember crying in school but not knowing why at the time. As an adult I can now reflect that I think I was just really stressed out. I knew I was required to go to college, but when choosing between a school in far away New York state and school in Milwaukee (we lived in east central Wisconsin), it didn't matter which school I liked better, I chose the school that would mean less financial impact on my family. And that was even after my dad had found a job. On the up side, my mom had part time work, and we kids viewed her as something of a super hero holding it all together, pinching every penny. I am now the primary wage earner in my family, perhaps emulating my mom's amazing feats.

Many parents expressed a positive result from their unemployment as children learn resilience from the experience.

"At college, my daughter now is extremely conscious of how she spends her money, even tracking the number of meals she eats at the cafeteria to make sure she isn't going to run out of money," wrote Ann on the blog.

Stevens said for some families in the lower part of the country's income distribution, the impact doesn't have such a sunny outcome.

"The resilience is great and it's very optimistic and encouraging, but I do think it's important to keep in mind that for some families... the best outcomes can look pretty bad," she said. "If you're close to the poverty line and then lose 10 percent of your income, it's very tough for those families and kids. I think to understand the cost of recessions and unemployment, we do have to sort of step back and say, 'Yes, many people are resilient, but there still are really critical hard effects, especially for those near the bottom of income distribution."

Do you know a child who seems stressed by the economic downturn? Did you have a parent go through a period of long-term unemployment? Comment on the blog.

MPR News' Madelyn Mahon contributed to this report.