Not long ago, my cousin was asked by his children if he might lose his job. They had overheard him describing how several people in his neighborhood had recently lost their jobs, and they became worried that dad might be laid off, too.
Thankfully, my cousin is in no danger of losing his job, but millions of others are not so fortunate.
As a social scientist who studies the effects of job loss on children, I know that losing a job can devastate a person, leading to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. As unemployment drags on, the effects often worsen, as reflected in a recent Gallup poll that found higher rates of depression among the long-term unemployed (those who have been out of work for six months or longer).
And, as my own and others research has shown, the insidious effects of unemployment extend well beyond the individual.
Thats why we should all be concerned that Congress has let federal benefits for the long-term unemployed simply expire, leaving nearly 3 million jobless people and their families without financial assistance since Jan. 1.
And thats why we should applaud new efforts in the Senate to revisit this issue. According to news reports, Sens. Jack Reed and Dean Heller intend to introduce a new bill this week that would restore benefits for up to five months for the long-term unemployed.
We should all hope that this latest effort to help the long-term jobless succeeds, because the consequences of one persons losing a job spill over and affect others. When husbands get laid off, their wives often become depressed, families interactions disintegrate, and friction and conflict between parents and children increases.
But the impact of widespread job losses extends beyond the obvious, creating negative ripple effects that fan out across an entire community, including in classrooms and clinics.
For starters, the impact of widespread job loss hits hard in our schools. Research has shown that children are more likely to be held back in school if one of their parents has lost a job.
And its not just children directly affected by job loss who suffer academically. My colleagues and I have studied job loss and student test scores in all 50 states and found that the more people in a community who lose jobs, the lower the scores of all children in that community on end-of-grade achievement tests. So even when their parents are still working children can score lower because of increased stress the type of stress that drove my cousins children to ask about his job security.
To be sure, most social science research has looked at the immediate effects of losing a job. We know less about what happens when people are unemployed for longer periods of time. It is possible that people might adjust to unemployment and reach a new normal. Given how damaging unemployment is to individuals and families in the short-term, though, it seems more likely that long periods of unemployment would have consequences that are still worse. The recent Gallup poll on depression supports that view.
Some 3 million jobless Americans have been left in a precarious economic state since long-term unemployment benefits lapsed on Jan. 1. Unemployment insurance benefits only provide people with a fraction of what they were earning when they were working. Restoring those benefits will not solve all the problems widespread layoffs cause for families that are directly affected or for the broader community. It also would not be cheap.
However, a failure to act could also prove very costly, since many studies have shown that poverty and economic hardship are linked to costly mental and physical health problems.
We should all hope that members of Congress can move past partisan gridlock to pass the bill that Sens. Reed and Heller plan to proposes. It is the right thing to do for these hard-hit families and for society in general.
Anna Gassman-Pines teaches public policy at Duke Universitys Sanford School of Public Policy and is a faculty fellow at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy