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Recession taking a toll that may last a lifetime for many children throughout the nation and Minnesota

Nationwide, 22 percent of children are living below the federal poverty line.

CORBIS/Linda Enger
Nationwide, 22 percent of children are living below the federal poverty line.

Economists may have declared the recession officially over, but for the very young, some of its effects are likely to last a lifetime, two new national reports predict.

Unfortunately, the national data are likely to hold true for Minnesota, too.

During past recessions, Minnesota kids generally have fared better than their peers across the country, according to Jim Koppel, regional director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota.

“Our economy was a little more diverse, a little more robust. But this one is different. It’s been as tough here as elsewhere,” he said.

“Families have never had less in the last 10 years and yet never needed more,” Koppel said. “If one thing goes away — the car breaks, the job is lost — it all comes apart. And we tend to let these families fail before we get involved.”

Downturn wiping out virtually all progress since 1975
Indeed, the national downturn will wipe out virtually all progress made since 1975, the year the Foundation for Child Development began tracking family economic well-being, the organization reports.

Because a recession exposes children to “toxic stress” while their brains and bodies are growing, they can’t bounce back the way adults can. Key developments take place between birth and age 3, making children born into poverty during the last three years especially vulnerable to hunger, a lack of health care and parental unemployment.

By age 5, a child raised in poverty is likely to be 18 months behind developmentally, Kopple explained. “They’re not ready to go to school, they’re not getting proper nutrition. “The chances of them recovering from that are nominal and very individual.”

A few resilient kids flourish anyhow, but for most, the long-term consequences of being a young child during a recession include higher rates of risky behavior, obesity, crime, school drop-out and unemployment. For society, long-term economic costs include reduced productivity, the cost of crime and increased health expenditures.

Nationwide, this year, 22 percent of children are living below the federal poverty line — the highest rate of the last 20 years, according to the private, New York-based foundation.

Meanwhile, according to the second report, based on research from the Council on Contemporary Families, children who fell into poverty during the recessions of the 1970s and ’80s were three times more likely than their peers to be poor as adults. Past research suggests that children who spend more than half of their childhood in poverty earn, on average, 39 percent less than the median income.

The effect will be particularly pronounced in schools, both national surveys and Minesota’s Children’s Defense Fund predict. Without high-quality early childhood education, poor children are likely to start lagging behind wealthier peers right away — a gap that typically snowballs as kids grow up.

The Minnesota picture
Every year, Koppel’s group produces KIDS COUNT, a statistical portrait of child poverty in Minnesota. Using data from 2008, the most recent survey (PDF) found that the percentage of Minnesota children living in poverty grew by almost a third between 2000 and 2008, to a total of 149,000.

By applying a formula devised by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that forecasts the number of children likely to be impoverished by increases in the unemployment, CDF-Minnesota predicted that by the time the recession ended in 2010, an additional 33 percent of Minnesota children — up to 205,000 — would have fallen into poverty.

A disproportionate number are minorities. In 2008, 40 percent of African-American children lived in poverty, compared with 7 percent of white children.

The year before, Minnesota had the highest percentage of impoverished Asian children in the country, at 24 percent, the local group found.

The Minnesota statistics don’t tell the whole story, Koppel added, because the federal income threshold for poverty is so low: less than $22,000 for a family of four. Many more families are struggling to get by on twice that amount at a time when social services have been cut to the bone.

There are a few bright spots. The Council on Contemporary Families notes that volunteerism and other forms of community involvement are on the rise. And CDF-Minnesota found the number of the state’s abused and neglected children dropped from 10,000 in 2002 to 6,277 in 2007, a trend that’s mirrored on the national level.

“I do believe the message about not hitting a child or physically abusing a child is getting through and reaching into more and more communities,” said Koppel.

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/16/2010 - 09:44 am.

    Two things, as long as unemployment remains high children will continue to live in and fall into poverty regardless of GDP. Second, I don’t know why we let economists declare ends to recessions so despite flat and declining wages and high unemployment and poverty/homeless rates. Our definition of recession is obviously tailored to the stock markets and not the real economy.

  2. Submitted by Virginia Rudloff on 06/16/2010 - 11:30 am.

    I hope Mr. Koppel is right about the reason for the drop in number of abused and neglected children. My fear is that cuts to social service budgets have resulted in a “higher bar” for determining whether a child is abused and neglected.

  3. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 06/16/2010 - 12:09 pm.

    Ms. Rudloff makes a good point. In fairness to Jim Koppel, I should add that he did mention there is no way of knowing right now whether some of the decrease in reports of abuse is attributable to social service agencies scrambling to adjust to bare-bones budgets.

    He also said he’s not sure that when we see firm 2009 numbers we won’t see a small uptick: The numbers cited in the story are for abuse and neglect, and it wouldn’t surprise him if more parents engage in neglect–e.g. leaving children unattended while they work–in times of economic crisis.

  4. Submitted by dan buechler on 06/16/2010 - 04:24 pm.

    Say it isn’t so. I recently scanned the book “The evolution of childhhood” and would prefer that stress doesn’t bear down on children. What does bear down is distress and probably in my naive way thinks there are things we can do as a socity to ameliorate that.

  5. Submitted by bea sinna on 06/21/2010 - 02:33 pm.

    The long term consequences of being a child in poverty also include mental illness. Children bear their parents’ burdens as well as their own burdens. ONE of the things we should do as a society to ameliorate the terrible consequences of stress and distress is to support and advocate for affordable and appropriate mental health care.

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