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Painful recession for kids

David Rubin is a pediatrician, director of PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and associate professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

David Rubin

is a pediatrician, director of PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and associate professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Kathleen Noonan

is former codirector and now senior adviser at PolicyLab and clinical associate professor, University of Wisconsin School of Law

Our recent recession has had many victims - the nation's children among the most prominent - and their struggles are far from over, especially now in what some are calling our "jobless recovery." As parents search for work or better pay, research shows the entire family experiences the destabilizing effects of recession.

Recently, our center, PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, released "The Effect of Recession on Child Well-Being: A Synthesis of the Evidence," the most comprehensive analysis yet of the effect that recession has on children and families.

The numbers were jaw-dropping, even to researchers accustomed to grim child health and well-being data. In just two years - from 2007 to 2009 - more than two million children were added to the ranks of the poor. Now, one in five U.S. children lives in poverty.

Not surprising, the growing number of poor children experience their new downward mobility in acute and painful ways. Consider housing. Even before we entered a recession marked by record foreclosures and plummeting property prices, 43 percent of families with children reported that they were struggling to afford safe and stable housing. Two years later, 20 percent of children live in households where housing costs consume more than half the family income.

If you can barely afford a home for your children, how are you feeding them? Not easily. Currently, one in five children lives in a household where putting food on the table is a source of daily anxiety. The number of families receiving food stamps in this country has risen to unprecedented levels. There are counties in this country where nearly three-quarters of children receive food stamps, exceeding the record levels of food-stamp receipt in many East Coast cities such as Philadelphia, where the rate trends closer to 50 percent.

What emerges from our analysis of the evidence is a picture of what the erosion of the middle class looks like at a household level. Their struggles go beyond whether they have a job (in fact, most families do). Rather, even if they have work, they are increasingly impoverished, whipsawed by the unrelenting daily costs of living amid falling real wages.

There is, however, reason for cautious hope: Bipartisan cooperation works. For example, before this recession, legislators across the aisles in Washington and from 40 state governments supported the expansion of children's health insurance programs. What has followed is the highest rate of health insurance coverage for children (90 percent) in history. Although there is certainly room to improve, children are now more likely to have a health-care safety net than their working parents.

Children whose families continue to struggle to meet their daily needs have in many ways become spectators to an economic recovery that has not reached them. For these children, the effects of the recession will be long-lasting. As a new majority takes control of the U.S. House, we hope that both parties remember that, while there are no easy solutions to the current economic crisis, the costs of failing to protect children will be enormous.