How Did Families and Children Fare During the Great Recession?

August 24, 2016

Many working families continue to struggle in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the deepest and longest economic downturn since the Great Depression. A new book from RSF, Children of the Great Recession, explores in depth the effects of the recession on parents and young children. The book is now available in full for free download from the foundation.

In Children of the Great Recession, a group of leading scholars draw from the Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study, a unique survey of nearly 5,000 economically and ethnically diverse families in twenty cities. By exploring the discrepancies in outcomes between these families—particularly between those headed by parents with college degrees and those without—this timely book shows how the most disadvantaged families have continued to suffer as a result of the Great Recession.

For example, in their chapter, Irwin Garfinkel and Natasha Pilkauskas examine changes in families’ household income, poverty levels, and economic insecurity throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century. They estimate the relationship between the local unemployment rates for parents in the study and their economic well-being, then use this estimate to predict what the economic well-being of these families would be given an increase in the unemployment rate from 5 percent to 10 percent (approximately the size of the increase brought about by the Great Recession).

The authors determine that the Great Recession exacerbated existing economic differences between families with a college-educated mother and those without. As the graph below shows, Garfinkel and Pilkauskas estimate that families in which the mother had a college education or more saw little to no change in poverty rates over the course of the recession. But for families with less-educated mothers—particularly those with more than a high school education but less than a college degree—the poverty rate rose from 8 percent to 14 percent.

Garfinkel and Pilkauskas also note that the disparities in poverty rates among the three less-educated groups (those with less than high school, those with high school, and those with some college) shrunk, indicating that the Great Recession narrowed the gap between the most vulnerable and somewhat more privileged groups by spreading distress to the latter groups. In other words, it is a college degree—rather than a high school diploma or even some college—that offers the greatest protection during recessionary times.

Click here to read Garfinkel and Pilkauskas’s chapter in full or download Children of the Great Recession.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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