As adults wrestle with rising foreclosure rates and disappearing jobs, child-development experts are reporting that children may end up shouldering some of the most severe, long-lasting consequences of the recession of 2008, according to the Foundation for Child Development (FCD). Working with an index of 28 indicators of quality of life called the Overall Composite Child Well-Being Index (CWI), the foundation looked at seven key areas to see how the nation's children are bearing up under the stress of the recession and how they will do in years to come. The results show that kids from preschool to age 19 may have to fight the detrimental impact of America's financial crisis for much of their lives. African-American kids will be "harder hit than their white counterparts because a larger proportion of children of color live in poverty," the report states.
The CWI reveals that "virtually all of the progress made in family economic well-being since 1975 will be wiped out for many," as individuals, organizations and governments trim budgets. Kenneth C. Land, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and demography at Duke who conducted the research and wrote the CWI report, explains, "In order to measure the full impact of the recession, we looked at trend data from 1975 to 2008, then projected what may happen through 2012." The survey numbers revealed a host of challenges for children in middle- and lower-income families, "but in each category, the risks would be 1.5 percent to 2 percent higher for African-American children," he says.
In almost every area measured — health, community and family life, emotional well-being — children have lost ground. Only educational attainment remained the same: frozen at 1975 levels. The most stunning numbers in the CWI report are those that assess poverty. "The percentage of children living below the poverty line is expected to peak at 21 percent in 2010, the highest rate in 20 years — nearly 16 million kids. The rate of children living in extreme poverty (50 percent below the poverty line) is projected to climb 10.1 percent in 2010 to 7.41 million children," according to CWI figures.
"This situation will be particularly hard on African-American children because they were already disproportionately affected by poverty before the recession began," says Alvin Poussaint, M.D., an expert on children's mental health and a professor at Harvard, after reviewing the CWI at The Root's request. "What we have here is a series of tragedies waiting to happen," he adds, noting that we have yet to see the full effects of the social and emotional problems that 2008's economic woes will bring.
While few would argue that children don't suffer greatly when their parents lose jobs, there is some question about whether the report paints the full picture of what kids are facing. The CWI states, for example, that the principal, recession-related health problem for children will be obesity, since the "public safety net" of government-sponsored children's health insurance will protect against other ills. (Nearly 90 percent of kids in the United States have medical coverage.)
No doubt that insurance is a great help, but "there are many other barriers, such as culture and caregiver-related issues, to consider," says Christel Brellochs, director of health and mental health for the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University. "In addition, there are health issues beyond obesity that disproportionately impact children in low-income families, including diabetes [type 2 is higher in African-American children] and low rates of immunization."
Medical insurance also "does not ensure that a child's basic health needs are met," she adds. "Asthma is very high among poor children [the rate is 15 percent for black children — three times that of white kids]. Because they have insurance, I can prescribe medications to relax their lungs, but if their home environment is filled with allergens or their parents can't afford to fill their prescriptions, insurance will not solve the problem," says Becker Cutts. "We can't really look at the impact of the recession and isolate just one hardship."
"The CWI also does not look at a range of mental health issues," Poussaint says, even though African-American children are overrepresented in situations that raise the risk of mental health problems — such as foster care — but less likely to have access to counseling, according to the NCCP.
The Need for Anchors in the Community
One other deeply disturbing trend highlighted in the CWI is the increasing alienation of young people who see no clear path to economic advancement. African-American kids — who, the CWI reports, will experience an unemployment rate near 40 percent — are particularly vulnerable. "It starts with the cuts we are seeing in prekindergarten programs around the country and extends to adolescents," Land says. "We are picking up increases in detached youth, teens who are not enrolled in school or employed. Without these social bonds, we may see upticks in violence and risky behaviors."
There was one bright spot in the CWI data: the role of the church in black communities. "We found that African-American children with higher levels of involvement in religious institutions were better off emotionally. [That involvement] served as a buffer against depression," says Land, underscoring what may be the most important message to be gathered from the CWI.
"The report should be a rallying cry to people who may be able to mentor children, help support community health programs, boys' and girls' clubs, and other activities," Poussaint says, "as well as a [reason] to model positive examples in the community, such as single parents who do a wonderful job raising their children. Even in these times, engaging kids in constructive activities and simply spending time with them can make a difference." Social connectedness, nurtured by families and community organizations, is the one type of wealth we can always give our children to sustain them through tough economic times.
Sheree Crute is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, N.Y.