Littlest victims of the Great Recession

There's an important article in today's Washington Post about the terrible consequences of the nation's foreclosure crisis on children and youth, many of whom have become homeless along with their families. It's heartbreaking and something we as a nation have not examined closely enough. (As the writer points out, the focus has been around the impact on the housing market, not the human impact, which is much harder to weigh.)

Needless to say, homeless children suffer myriad stresses and disruptions that impede their social and emotional development. Not having access to their favorite toys or clothing, having no secure place to store the belongings they did take along with them, and not knowing where they might spend the night or go to school can turn a young child's world upside down and do permanent damage to their sense of security. One thing is clear: while the immediate toll is devastating to children and families, we will not see the total effect on society for some time. 

Last week I attended a briefing on Capitol Hill on the effects of the recession on children. The event was hosted by First Focus, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and the Foundation for Child Development and PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The only heartening thing about the briefing was the fact that the room was packed with Senate staffers and others. The rest was hard to hear, though certainly not hard to believe. The findings were based on a synthesis of several recent studies. (Download the entire report here.)

  • During the most recent recession, the number of children in the United States living in poverty jumped by more than 2.2 million--from 13.3 million in 2007 to 15.5 million in 2009. As a large body of research shows, these children are vulnerable to a host of negative social, health and developmental outcomes. 
  • We may not know the magnitude of the problem for several years, as many studies have shown that it takes many years for families to rebound from recessions, particularly the lowest-income families. As the report observed, " Even when a family does return to its pre-recession income level the effects of hardships experienced by children are not always easily erased. The direct and indirect consequences of recessions influence children's future economic opportunities, health and general welfare."
  • The other overarching finding was actually positive: Public investments in strengthening the social safety net for families do blunt the negative impacts of recession. "Particularly in the areas of health and social services, children's vulnerability to fluctuations in economic cycles depends on the strength of social safety net programs in place prior to a recession, as well as how such programs are maintained during the downturn." (Mayor-Elect Gray and Council members, please take note.)

Some of the more specific findings:

  • One in five children in this country are classified as "food insecure" -- the highest it's ever been since the Great Depression. A silver lining to this sad statistic is the group's finding that the food stamp program works very well, which contributed to a relatively small increase in this indicator during the recession. 
  • Child maltreatment and abuse spikes during recessions. Data being reported by children's hospitals across the country are beginning to show a substantial increase in child head injuries.
  • In addition to the children and families who are already homeless, many more are on the verge. One in five children live in households where more than 50 percent of the parents' income is going to pay the mortgage or rent. (Federal guidelines say it should be no more than a third.)

DC Action and our partners in the High 5 for DC's Kids campaign are working hard on these issues every day. If you haven't already, please take a moment to view and sign onto our platform here to show your support for DC's youngest citizens.