September 5, 2010 in Features

How adults handle economic hardship can indelibly mark children

 
Christopher Anderson photo

After graduating from the University of Idaho in 2008, Emily Rawls encountered an economy with few jobs and few opportunities for the immediate future.
(Full-size photo)

Emily Rawls, 24, started at the University of Idaho in 2004, and her major and minor – interior design and architecture – matched a marketplace need.

Housing was boom town.

By the time Rawls finished her degree in May 2008, the boom had bust. She landed some design work in Spokane, but those jobs went away as the economy worsened.

In December 2009, she sent out more than 100 resumes to Northwest architecture and design firms.

“I applied to every architecture firm in Portland,” Rawls said. “One told me to call back in 2011.”

She moved into her parents’ home, remained on their health insurance and looked for work in other fields.

“I had no other choice,” she said.

Job news is dismal this Labor Day weekend. Amid double-dip recession fears, the unemployment rate continues its flirt with 10 percent.

This protracted recession has the potential to change forever the career paths of young adults like Rawls. For children, it has the potential to undermine their success in school and later, in the workplace.

But the way adults handle this economic downturn, and explain it to their children, can make all the difference.

“Help your kids know that something went wrong with the system, and you intend to help fix it,” advises Stephanie Coontz of the national Council on Contemporary Families.

“When kids get the message that you can change something, nothing is too hard to take. It’s when they get the message that you can’t change something, that you are victims, that’s what creates the self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The bad news

Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, examined 45 statistical studies, academic articles and other reports on what happens to families during and after economic recessions.

Last spring, she and fellow researcher Valerie Adrian presented their findings at the Council on Contemporary Families’ annual conference in Illinois.

They found bad news everywhere:

• Fathers who lose their jobs in recessions die younger than those steadily employed.

• Parents who lose their jobs often experience debilitating insomnia. They also report increased arguments with family and friends.

“Women admit to anxiety or depression, but men were more likely to report feeling ashamed most of the time,” Coontz reported.

• Mothers and fathers who keep jobs in recession can also experience increased health problems, depression and sleep difficulties. The reason? Pay cuts and fears of job loss.

• Children of unemployed parents are at risk academically.

“Parents who are depressed stop paying attention to the positive things, like helping with homework, and only pay attention to the negative,” Coontz said in a recent phone interview.

• Children who fall into poverty in recessions are three times as likely to be poor as adults. They are at increased risk for addiction and health problems, further limiting their work potential.

During the Great Depression, children suffered, too. Without unemployment benefits, some fathers killed themselves. Others abandoned their families.

But a couple years into the Depression, families, neighborhoods and government leaders united in the belief that they could emerge from economic despair by working together, Coontz said.

In this recession, she’s found that many people believe they can depend only on themselves.

“That’s a scary reaction,” she said. “It’s exactly the wrong lesson (for children). You cannot only depend on yourself.”

Some good news

Rawls realized to work in this economy, she’d have to set aside her designer dreams. Then, she set about finding a job, any job.

Young people entering the job market during a recession face several obstacles. It can take years for a recession-hired employee years to catch up, salary-wise.

“You start out at a disadvantage,” Coontz pointed out. “You accept less money. You get less money (in raises.) You tend to be nervous asking for more money.”

From a friend, Rawls heard that PAML, a regional medical lab, was hiring. She applied and, after two interviews, got a part-time job doing medical billing. After three months, she was hired for a full-time position.

She plans to move into her own place. She’ll have her own medical benefits.

“PAML is a great company,” she said. “I’m learning about doctors and illnesses and paperwork. Ultimately, I want to do interior design, but I’m going to run with what I’m doing now.”

Rawls works evenings at PAML, and hopes to work on freelance design projects during the day.

Coontz sees some good news amid the bad. Workers hired in recessions will likely possess more gratitude and greater flexibility and be less afraid of job changes.

“A recession can be a wake-up call that says, ‘OK, these things are not going to fall in my lap. But I’m not going to give up on my dreams. I may have to tweak my dream a bit. And it may take longer and harder work to get there,’ ” she said.

Though she loves – and appreciates – her current job, Rawls isn’t abandoning her college dreams. Someday, she hopes to design upscale hotels, where all around her she sees boom town again.


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