The Consequences of Factory Closures Last for Generations

By Alana Semuels

Justin Williams, now 24, was a teenager when the Indiana manufacturing plant where both of his parents worked shut down in 2007. He still works in the eastern Indiana town where he was raised, but told me he didn’t feel that there was a very supportive network for him growing up. “It’s hard to do anything around here if you don’t know people—you need connections,” he said. He didn’t go to college, and now works as a bartender at a local bar. He’s worked in a few factories, but none of them paid as well as his parents were paid.

This experience isn’t all that uncommon. Children of parents who lose their jobs perform worse in school, and are less likely to go to college, research shows. But a new study by Elizabeth O. Ananat and Anna Gassman-Pines of Duke University, and Dana V. Francis and Christina M. Gibson-Davis of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, suggests that these negative effects aren’t limited to the families of those who lose their jobs. According to the paper, widespread layoffs affect the future of many children in a community, worsening their mental health, decreasing their test scores, and diminishing their chances of going to college. Unsurprisingly, those consequences are felt most by the lowest-income students.

Ananat and her colleagues looked at suicidal thoughts reported among 12- to 17-year-olds in the year after companies in their home states reported large layoffs. They found that suicidal thoughts in African American youth increased by 2.33 percentage points in the wake of statewide job losses. They looked at test scores and found that eighth-grade math achievement scores fell in the wake of a mass layoff. They also looked at the job losses in the context of data from Stanford economist Raj Chetty that shows which children from different regions of the country end up going to college. They found that if a state suffers cumulative job loss of 7 percent during a child’s adolescence, there is a 20 percent decline in the likelihood that the poorest students attend college (there was no noticeable impact in college attendance for students from the highest-income families)

Ananat theorizes that the far-reaching impact of unemployment is because adolescents are affected not only by their own parents, but by their networks of contacts, such as teachers, coaches, and friends’ parents. When someone in that network experiences job loss, that person may become more stressed; when people in that network are stressed because their friends experienced job loss, that further increases anxiety and tension. And even adults who haven’t lost their jobs may be stressed if they fear impending job loss, which also affects the children around them.

“Macrolevel job losses are best conceptualized as community-level traumas that harm the mental health of both children and adults,” the authors write, “and of both families who experience job loss and those who only witness it.” Still, such large-scale job losses often hit low-income communities harder. Low-income workers are often the first to lose their jobs in …read more

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