Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Losing a job can hurt the kids

A father's loss of a job can affect his children's self-image and their ability to earn money when they become breadwinners themselves.

In a study published last July in the Journal of Labor Economics, researchers looked at Canadian data from 1978-1999 on 39,000 pairs of fathers and sons. "We find that children whose fathers were displaced have annual earnings about 9% lower than similar children whose fathers did not experience an employment shock," they wrote. Such children are also more likely to receive unemployment insurance and social assistance, the researchers concluded.

The researchers do not know why this happens, but it's a chilling statistic to think about now, when 3 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past few months.

I learned about the study from Sue Shellenbarger's Work and Family column in the Wall Street Journal. In a column published this morning, she also noted that a father's job loss can have harmful psychological effects on his children:

"Glen Elder, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, found in studies of the Great Depression that the self-image of small children of that era was shaped by the morale of their same-sex parent. Amid the traditional gender roles of the time, young boys suffered most, from seeing their fathers deprived of work and a sense of identity, says Dr. Elder, author of Children of the Great Depression."

This has a bit of a pop-psychology ring to it; I'm not sure I believe it. (I haven't read the study, so this is a cheap shot; I plan to look it up.) But the suggestion that fathers' lay-offs can have cross-generational effects is disturbing.

Shellenbarger doesn't make too much of this. She concludes her piece by noting that some parents are equipping their children to survive hard times. That might help their financial outlook, but it's not likely to overcome any psychological fall-out in the children.

We often take fathers' breadwinning for granted. We are critical of fathers who spend too much time at work and not enough time with their children. But these studies suggest that the image of the father as breadwinner is an important touchstone for children. When that image is tarnished, something undesirable happens to the kids.

It's yet another area where we need to know more about fathers--and where existing studies are scarce.

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