NYT Examines the Impact of the Crisis on Kids

A few weeks ago I praised a Sesame Street special, of all things, for putting a human face on the impact of the economic crisis on families. Today, The New York Times does something similar with a page-one story and audio slide show on kids whose parents have been laid off.

The Times profiles a family in suburban Houston with a laid-off father and children who have subsequently showed behavioral problems:

Paul Bachmuth’s 9-year-old daughter, Rebecca, began pulling out strands of her hair over the summer. His older child, Hannah, 12, has become noticeably angrier, more prone to throwing tantrums.

Initially, Mr. Bachmuth, 45, did not think his children were terribly affected when he lost his job nearly a year ago. But now he cannot ignore the mounting evidence.

“I’m starting to think it’s all my fault,” Mr. Bachmuth said.

It’s a good anecdotal lede, and reporter Michael Luo could have done the three-examples-and-done thing. Instead, he backs it up with reporting on several studies that have shown negative effects of a parent’s unemployment on children.

One shows a 15 percent higher chance of flunking a grade, another shows a higher risk of becoming a high-school dropout. Yet another shows such children earn less when they get to adulthood.

But Dr. Kalil, a developmental psychologist and director of the university’s Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, said the more important factor, especially in middle-class households, appeared to be changes in family dynamics from job loss.

“The extent that job losers are stressed and emotionally disengaged or withdrawn, this really matters for kids,” she said. “The other thing that matters is parental conflict. That has been shown repeatedly in psychological studies to be a bad family dynamic.”

Which fits well with the family the Times profiles, as well as with a secondary family in the story.

It’s a nuanced look at the ripple effects unemployment can have. Multiply these three families (one of whom has held up relatively well) by the millions who are out of work and it’s a grim picture of what’s going on out there right now. And it’s worth pointing out that this recession is far deeper than what we’ve typically seen and out-of-work time has been far longer than normal. That can only make things worse.

Also, see the NYT’s accompanying slide show, which uses audio interviews of the family’s own words to tell their story. The Times is really getting good at that kind of thing, and it’s not just a technical achievement. Seeing and hearing a story can help make it more vivid, as we saw with the Sesame Street crisis special. In this instance, it really helps round out the story.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.