Latest Recession Will Have Lasting Effect on Children

November 16, 2010 — Spells of poverty, even if temporary, may have lifelong health implications for children, according to the largest report so far reviewing the recent recession’s effects on child well-being.

While researchers from PolicyLab at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found significant evidence linking poverty to poor child health, they particularly focused on the impact of this recession compared with previous recessions on children. The report, The Effect of Recession on Child Well-Being: A Synthesis of the Evidence, was commissioned by First Focus and written by PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital. It will be discussed in a congressional briefing with Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) in Washington, Wed., Nov. 17.

The synthesis examines four areas — health, food security, housing stability and maltreatment — and reviews the relationship of each to the well-being of children during recessions both past and present. PolicyLab researchers report that the number of U.S. children living in poverty rose dramatically from 13.3 million children in 2007 to 15.5 million (or one in five children) by 2009. 

Findings — Increased Need for Affordable Housing and Food

Increased poverty between 2007 and 2009 has made it more difficult for families to affording stable housing and food :

  • Approximately 43 percent of families with children are struggling to afford stable housing.
  • A dramatic increase in the number of households classified as “food insecure” during this recession.
    • Almost a quarter (21 percent) of all households with children fell into this category in 2008, the highest percentage since 1995 when yearly measurement started
    • There has been a nearly 25 percent increase from 2007.

Implications of scarce food dollars

“While there has been much discussion about housing issues for families during this recession, I’m not sure many people know how profound the food insecurity issues have been, where as many as 74 percent of children in some of our communities are now relying on food stamps to put dinner on the table,” said David Rubin, MD, MSCE, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital.

“The evidence is also strong that those families who entered the recession in poverty will take much longer to rebound, demonstrating that we have a long road ahead even as the economy improves.” 

How government programs help families during recession

The report also shows the benefit of government programs during times of recession.

“The strength of the safety net going into a recession can really help blunt the impact on families,” said Kathleen Noonan, JD, a study co-author from the University of Wisconsin School of Law. “Children’s health insurance programs that were strengthened by Congress and many states before the recession have allowed families to retain coverage for their children even as parents lost jobs and employment-sponsored health insurance. The result has been a steady increase in insurance coverage for children in the last few years even with all the challenges introduced by the recession.”

In other areas, such as housing, better safety nets still need to be developed. In 2008, nearly two out of every five renters spent 35 percent or more of their income on housing. The number of homeless families with children who spent time in a shelter rose by 30 percent between 2007 and 2009.

"The findings of this report continue to shed light on the critical role that safety net programs are playing in reducing the devastating impacts of the recession on children," said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, the bipartisan child advocacy organization who commissioned the report. "Despite serious increases in child poverty as a result of the economic downturn, and an increasingly high number of adults without health insurance, the uninsured rate for children has remained flat.

"This is entirely due to the overwhelming success of Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and highlights that targeted federal investments in the healthcare safety net make a huge difference in the lives of children. As our nation's leaders guide us down the path to economic recovery, it is critical that they preserve important programs, such as Medicaid and CHIP, in order to continue protecting our most vulnerable children.

About the report authors

In addition to Rubin and Noonan, study authors include Katherine Sell, MSSP; Sarah Zlotnik, MSW, MSPH, of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital. The study was made possible through support from the Foundation for Child Development.

About PolicyLab

PolicyLab at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia develops evidence-based solutions for the most challenging health-related issues affecting children. PolicyLab engages in research that is both responsive to community needs and relevant to policy priorities, partnering with practitioners, policymakers, and families throughout the research process. Through its work, PolicyLab identifies the programs, practices, and policies that support the best outcomes for children and their families, disseminating its findings beyond research and academic communities as part of its commitment to transform evidence to action.

More information

View the full report