Like the Great Depression, this economic downturn is wrenching lives out of shape.
But unlike 90 years ago, hunger isn’t the main problem, and neither is the kind of homelessness that sent thousands of middle-class Americans into tent cities during the Depression. This time the toll is far less obvious: children are grappling with more stress at home, and low-income families, already highly mobile, are being forced to pull up stakes and move more often.
“It’s huge,” said Ana Leon, the school counselor at Wilton Manors Elementary in Ft. Lauderdale, who said mobility had increased significantly this year at her 600-student, mostly low-income school.
Many Wilton Manors students are migrants whose families are returning to live in Central and South America because there’s no work. Others are construction workers leaving Florida’s collapsed housing market to look for jobs in Texas.
Educators and demographers say frequent moves can lower school performance and increase chances that students will drop out of school. It also makes it more difficult to provide appropriate resources to children who have learning disabilities and behavioral issues.
Harming scholastic achievement
“Mobility is one of the main things that hinders student achievement,” said Leon. She cited the case of a young girl in elementary school who moved from another city just one week before standardized testing began.
“She was lost,” said Leon. “We have her in a group, we’re doing one-on-one counseling with her, and we’re talking to the teacher so the teacher can support the parent.”
Other students leave without any warning — the families just disappear one day, said Leon, adding that in those cases it’s impossible to help the children prepare for the move and assure a smooth transition to another school.
Jean Lovelace, a principal at the low-income Whitney Elementary School in Boise, said among the hardest hit are children who were struggling to begin with. She illustrated the point with a young boy who arrived at Whitney in September with an attention deficit disorder. Over the course of the school year, his mother lost her job, and then the family lost their home to foreclosure. They plan to move to a new town where housing is less expensive.
“Things were pretty settled while they still had their house,” said Lovelace of the first-grader. “Then they lost their house, and his naughty behavior has absolutely escalated.
At his new school, he will continue to receive care for his ADHD, Lovelace said, but there will be a period of adjustment.
“Honestly I think he’s going to go to the next school and just be out of control,” she said, adding that the boy’s behavior has a negative impact on all of the children in his class.
‘It's all chaos and catastrophe’
Changes in living conditions are also stressful at home, particularly if newly unemployed adults are sharing space, said Sophea Chom of South Junior High in Boise. Her father was recently laid off from Micron Technology Inc., a Boise-based computer chip maker.
“Currently my mother’s brother lives in the house with us, so it’s all chaos and catastrophe,” said 15-year-old Chom, whose mother works at Micron. “My dad is getting grouchier by the moment.”
This economic downturn is not nearly as severe as the one that hit in the 1920s. Then, unemployment reached 25 percent; now it’s around 8 percent, and the government helps with food, clothing and housing.
“The kids have clothes. They can get breakfast and lunch at school,” said Julie Hartline, a school counselor in Smyrna, Georgia. “It’s just a change in lifestyle with a lot of kids. That’s a big deal, even for adults, but especially when you’re young and just developing.”
Groups that study family mobility, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Census Bureau, do not yet have hard data from the period when the general downturn in economic growth became widespread in September 2008.
Without that, it’s hard to say with certainty if mobility has risen, said Scott South, a demographer in the sociology department at the State University of New York in Albany.
Families usually move less during poor economic conditions, he said. However, in very severe situations, families will be forced to move because of foreclosures and evictions.
For now, the trend is being seen predominantly through the eyes of educators.
“We keep hearing from principals that kids are moving more,” said Gerald Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Hartline said she’s puzzled by a large influx of new arrivals from Detroit to her Atlanta-area suburb.
“I don’t know what industry they are flocking towards,” she said. ’Maybe they have family here.”
And many of the newcomers are registering for school using the address of a friend or relative they are staying with.
Despite all the bad news, many children said they’ve hardly noticed the recession. Others said it’s affecting their parents, but not them.
Dillon Dalgarn, an 11-year-old sixth grader, is sleeping in the living room of his grandmother’s two-bedroom apartment where his mother recently moved to save money. But, he says, the impact was muted because his mother’s friends gave him video games systems to play with.
“When I think about it, I’m actually pretty lucky because of all the stuff I do have,” Dillon said.
Educators are cautioning parents to be careful about discussing personal financial or job-related struggles with younger children.
“They’ll only know you’re unhappy and worried and will feel helpless to help you,” said Washington Elementary School Principal Bob Amburn in an April newsletter to parents.
For older children, Hartline recommended being as honest as possible about what is going on with family finances.
“I try to help students realize what things are out of their control,” she said.