Families of the Recession: Unemployed Parents & Their Children

Julia B. Isaacs and
Julia B. Isaacs Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Urban Institute
Phillip Lovell

January 14, 2010

One in nine American children has an unemployed parent as a result of the current recession, known by many as the “Great Recession.” These 8.1 million children are more likely to experience homelessness, suffer from child abuse, fail to complete high school or college, and live in poverty as adults than other children.

The economy is technically emerging from the recession and is likely to recover in the coming years. However, the same may not be the case for our children without a concerted effort to address their needs and provide them with every opportunity to work hard and attain the American Dream. The following brief analyzes the number of children and youth who are impacted by the recession, examines the consequences, and recommends policy solutions.

ESTIMATE REVISION: The estimate of children living with an unemployed parent has been revised downward since the brief was first issued in January 2010. Further examination of the data reveals that the old estimate of 10.5 million children included 8.1 million children truly living with unemployed parents and over 2.3 million children living with other unemployed family members in December 2009. See methodological note in full report.


An estimated 8.1 million children under the age of 18 live in families with an unemployed parent. Another 3.3 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are themselves unemployed. These figures are based on monthly unemployment statistics and annual data on family status of unemployed men and women (see methodological note for a complete explanation).

Greatly Increasing the Number of Children with an Unemployed Parent

The Great Recession has increased the number of children with an unemployed parent by 67 percent. In December 2007, the month in which the nation technically entered into recession, the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent and an estimated 4.8 million children had an unemployed parent. The unemployment rate has now escalated to 10.0 percent, leaving 8.1 million children with a parent looking for work. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of the unemployed are parents.

Rising Youth Unemployment

The recession’s impact on youth also has been stark. In December of 2007, 2.6 million youth between the ages of 16 and 24 were unemployed (that is, they were actively looking for a job, and could not find one). The latest figures show that 3.3 million youth are unemployed, an increase of 750,000, or 29 percent.

Because young people are most likely to seek employment during the summer months, it is helpful to look at summer job figures to get a complete picture of youth employment. This past summer saw the highest youth unemployment rate on record (18.5 percent) and 4.4 million unemployed youth aged 16 to 24, an increase of nearly 1 million from the summer of 2008.

A comparison of youth unemployment across races is also compelling. The unemployment rate of black youth aged 16 to 19 is twice that of white youth (48.4 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively).

Children are Disproportionately Impacted by Unemployment

One in nine children, or 11 percent, has an unemployed parent. This percentage is higher than the percentage of working-aged adults who are unemployed (7.4 percent of adults 18 to 64 were unemployed in December 2009). The disproportionate impact of unemployment on children goes beyond the simple numerical comparison, however, because of the negative effects of unemployment on children’s well-being. This includes adverse impacts in the areas of poverty, homelessness, education and child safety.