Ananat and her colleagues looked at suicidal thoughts reported among 12- to 17-year-olds in the year after companies in their home states reported large layoffs. They found that suicidal thoughts in African American youth increased by 2.33 percentage points in the wake of statewide job losses. They looked at test scores and found that eighth-grade math achievement scores fell in the wake of a mass layoff. They also looked at the job losses in the context of data from Stanford economist Raj Chetty that shows which children from different regions of the country end up going to college. They found that if a state suffers cumulative job loss of 7 percent during a child’s adolescence, there is a 20 percent decline in the likelihood that the poorest students attend college (there was no noticeable impact in college attendance for students from the highest-income families)
Ananat theorizes that the far-reaching impact of unemployment is because adolescents are affected not only by their own parents, but by their networks of contacts, such as teachers, coaches, and friends’ parents. When someone in that network experiences job loss, that person may become more stressed; when people in that network are stressed because their friends experienced job loss, that further increases anxiety and tension. And even adults who haven’t lost their jobs may be stressed if they fear impending job loss, which also affects the children around them.
“Macrolevel job losses are best conceptualized as community-level traumas that harm the mental health of both children and adults,” the authors write, “and of both families who experience job loss and those who only witness it.” Still, such large-scale job losses often hit low-income communities harder. Low-income workers are often the first to lose their jobs in a recession, and have less of a financial safety net to fall back on in the event of job loss. Unemployment is also more stressful for those who will presumably have a tough time finding new employment, which is often true of low-wage workers.
The findings that widespread job loss can hamper college attendance among many children in a community is frustrating, but it’s especially devastating for low-income students. That’s because college is often seen as one of the best ways for people from low-income backgrounds to protect themselves from future job loss. Unemployment is lower among the college-educated, and pay is higher for those workers—which can provide not only employment insulation, but social mobility. But unfortunately, massive job losses make it more difficult for low-income students to get to college in the first place, the study suggests.
It’s not just that job loss in a community creates financial challenges that prevent poorer kids from going to college. First-generation students who go to college need to have confidence in their abilities, Ananat said, and “anything that worsens mental health is going to make people have lower optimism and more doubt about their ability to do something that they don’t have a lot of role models for.” That means that widespread job loss not only robs poorer kids of the means to get to college, but also creates a mental and emotional toll that can decrease their belief in their academic and social abilities.