Do babies born during a recession have more problems as they grow up? (Photo: Thinkstock)Kids born during the economic recessions of the 1980s had a higher chance of substance abuse and arrest as teenagers, a new study has found, leading researchers to wonder if babies born in recent years could face a similar fate.
"The mechanisms involved may be different in intensity and severity, (but) based on the study it seems like there would be some effects," Dr. Seethalakshmi Ramanathan, a researcher at State University of New York Upstate Medical University and the lead author of the study told Reuters.
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The study, which was published online this week in JAMA Psychiatry, used data from 8,984 people born between January 1, 1980, and December 31, 1984, who had participated in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, when they were 12 to 17 years old. There were two recessions in the 1980s, from 1980 to 1981 and then another in 1982.
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The BLS' survey included questions about education, income, attitudes, expectations, thefts, arrests, drug use, alcohol use, gun use, and cigarette use, among other things. Ramanathan and her team found that certain destructive and delinquent behaviors were more common among kids who were born in areas affected by high unemployment rates. (A recession is defined as a general slowdown in economic activity with drops in Gross Domestic Product levels, incomes, business profits, and inflation while unemployment and bankruptcy rates rise; measuring the unemployment rate is one way to judge the severity of a recession in a given area.)
The risk for being arrested, joining a gang, smoking pot, stealing, drinking, and smoking were all slightly higher (by 6 to 17 percent) for kids who were born in or spent their first few years in areas with high unemployment rates, even if their families were wealthy or not unemployed -- and even though the U.S. economy was well on the way to recovery by 1997, when the teens surveyed were exhibiting their less-than-stellar behavior.
"It basically went across all socioeconomic strata," Ramanathan said. Since the increase in risky behavior wasn't limited to one area of the country or one socioeconomic class, "From a national level, it seems like everyone is affected," she added.
For every 1 percentage point below the mean regional unemployment rate, kids in affected areas had a 9 percent higher chance of using marijuana, a 7 percent higher chance of smoking tobacco, and a 6 percent higher chance of drinking when they were teenagers. Also higher: Gang affiliation (9 percent), petty theft (6 percent), major theft (11 percent), and the chance of getting arrested (17 percent). More serious problems -- like gun violence, assault, destroying property, and abusing hard drugs -- were not affected by higher unemployment rates.
But why? The study doesn't speculate, but high unemployment obviously causes plenty of stress for families. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 14 percent of people of child-bearing age said that they were delaying having a child because of the recession, which could mean that pregnancies during that time were less likely to have been planned; kids born as the result of an unwanted pregnancy often suffer from poorer mental and physical health, have less-close relationships with their parents, and may have higher levels of delinquency during adolescence when compared to children born from intended pregnancies, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported in 2008.
Also, tough economic times can force stay-at-home parents back into the workplace, which could impact a child's early years; and the forced-back-to-work parents may have jobs and still be crippled by financial concerns. And psychologists point out that long-term unemployment can have serious mental health consequences, including depression, and can lead to higher rates of domestic violence and alcohol abuse. With all of these factors, it stands to reason that living in an area with a high unemployment rate can take a toll on every household, even ones in which the parents still have jobs.
So does this mean that kids born since 2009 will be acting out and getting into trouble a decade from now? Not necessarily. Though the correlation is strong, researchers say that being born during a recession doesn't necessarily doom you to a difficult life.
"We can't say high unemployment caused the effects," Ramanathan said. "We don't know what the mediating factors are."
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