STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Even a short-term job loss for parents can turn into a long-term problem for kids

Lamanda Coulter
Lamanda Coulter hopes her daughter Ronnie never remembers seeing her struggle

In 2010, one out of three kids in this country lived in a house where neither parent had full-time, year-round work. That new figure comes from the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count report.

It shows one of the uncomfortable truths of the Great Recession: that kids were among the hardest hit. 

Ronnie Coulter can’t tell you much about the recession. 

Officially, Ronnie - whose full name is Veronica -  was born after the recession. But her Mom, Lamanda Coulter has bounced around from job to job for Ronnie’s entire life. Not even for the typical, recession reasons. When Ronnie was 10 months old, Lamanda had to leave her job

"It was just, I couldn’t find daycare," she says.

At least not daycare she could afford.

"So, I just had to stay home and try to find ways to support me and my baby," she says.

Coulter did her friends’ hair for cash. She signed up for assistance from the state. She moved in with family. But even after getting the daycare situation fixed, Coulter has been bouncing between temp jobs, which is stressful.

"Because every time I lose a job, I be in a bad mood the whole day, to the point where I’m stressing people out around me, 'You need to take me to the place to go fill out applications right now.'"

It’s true that the recession affected everyone in America, rich and poor. But some groups were hit worse. People with no college degree. African-Americans. Coulter is in both of those groups.

But another group that was hit hard is kids.

Ariel Kalil is a public policy professor at the University of Chicago.

"At present, about a quarter of children under the age of six are living below the official poverty line," she says.

That line comes it at a combined income of $23 thousand  for a family of four. And the poverty rate for young kids is about eight percentage points higher than it is for the general population.

Slipping into poverty is just one of the risks for kids when their parents lose a job. Kalil says kids in this situation are more likely to have behavior problems, they’re more likely to be held back a grade - and that can hurt their chances of getting into college, even years after the parent went back to work.

“I think we need to think about the recession and job loss and unemployment in general as a two-generation problem," Kalil says.

Lamanda Coulter is working hard to make sure that’s not the case for her daughter.

“I’m going to have to tell her if you got to do it, do it," she says. "If you’ve got to get a temp job, get it. You know, by all means necessary. Do it."

Coulter has been bouncing around with these temp jobs for a while. Now she’s working in a factory that makes parts for heavy-duty trucks. She’s getting good hours, and there’s potential for permanent work. She’s looking into getting her own apartment. She’s paying down her debts.

"I’m seeing a little progress," she says. "At first I was working, and I couldn’t get nothing paid off, you know. So it felt good for me to go in and pay $500 worth of bills off."

The ultimate goal is to go to college, and to start her own business.

And maybe, Ronnie won’t even remember what it’s like to see her mom struggle.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.