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How High Unemployment Harms the Next Generation

New research finds high jobless rates raise adolescents' stress levels, making it less likely they enroll in college.

The loss of a job—or the fear a pink slip could arrive at any time—can be catastrophic, not only for the laid-off worker, but also for members of their family. As economic fears grow, teenagers experience an atmosphere of tension and anxiety at a stage of life when stability is critical.

Clearly, the best route to economic stability for these kids is a college degree. But new research reveals a sad irony: The disruption caused by layoffs results in fewer kids from poor families attending college.

"Local job losses can both worsen adolescent mental health and lower academic performance," hindering their ability to get into college, a research team led by Duke University's Elizabeth Ananat writes in the journal Science. "Job destruction knocks many youths off the path to college."

Using data from all 50 states covering the years 1995 through 2011, the researchers compared state-level job losses with the gap in college enrollment between rich and poor. Specifically, they examined how large-scale layoffs that take place in a given state during one's adolescent years (12 to 17) impact college attendance rates when they are 19.

The results were striking. "A cumulative state job loss during adolescence of 7 percent leads to a 20 percent decline in the likelihood that the poorest youth attend college," Ananat and her colleagues report. This decrease was even steeper for African Americans.

Interestingly, they found this trend "does not vary by state college tuition levels—including when accounting for financial aid." That suggests this is not being driven (at least exclusively) by families not having the funds to pay for tuition.

"Job destruction knocks many youths off the path to college."

Rather, they argue, adolescents who experience this sort of family trauma—as well as those who see it happening all around them, and fear it will also affect their household—are at higher risk for mental-health problems such as depression and anxiety.

"Suicidal ideation increases by 2.33 percentage points among black youth in response to statewide job losses," the researchers report. This figure is "much too large to by driven only by youth who experience job loss within their own family," suggesting realistic potential for parental unemployment is enough to prompt suicidal thoughts.

Needless to say, kids suffering from emotional trauma often see their academic performance suffer. For example, "we find that job losses to 1 percent of (a state's) working-age population in the previous year decrease eighth-grade math achievement test scores," the researchers write.

Ananat and her colleagues argue that their findings suggest a strong need for more and better retraining programs, so "workers acquire new employment quickly." As we have noted, such programs haven't been very successful in the United States; the researchers suggest a model used in Denmark, featuring "intense activities aimed at increasing workers' skills," may produce better results.

"Such a policy approach may not only directly assist those who have lost jobs," they write, "but may also benefit the community more broadly," lowering rates of adolescent mental-health distress and helping more low-income kids get into college.

Clearly, something must be done to stop this spiral. Upward mobility has always been the promise of America; without it, we risk calcifying into the haves and have-nots, a divide that breeds instability.