Do Recession Babies Grow Up to Be Troubled Teens?

Kids born during an an economic recession may have a higher chance of substance abuse and arrest as teenagers, a new study says, leading researchers to wonder if babies born in recent years could face a similar fate.

"The mechanisms involved maybe different in intensity and severity, (but) based on the study it seems like there would be some effects," Dr. Seethalakshmi Ramanathan, a researcher at State University of New York Upstate Medical University and the lead author of the study told Reuters.

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The study, which was published online this week in JAMA Psychiatry, used data from 8,984 people born between January 1, 1980, and December 31, 1984, who had participated in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, when they were 12 to 17 years old.

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The BLS' survey included questions about education, income, attitudes, expectations, thefts, arrests, drug use, alcohol use, gun use, and cigarette use, among other things. Ramanathan and her team found that certain destructive and delinquent behaviors were more common among kids who were born in areas affected by high unemployment rates.

The risk for being arrested, joining a gang, smoking pot, stealing, drinking, and smoking were all slightly higher -- by 6 to 17 percent -- for kids who were born in or spent their first few years in areas with high unemployment rates, even if their families were wealthy -- and even though the U.S. economy was well on the way to recovery by 1997, when the national unemployment rate was a low 4.9 percent.

"It basically went across all socioeconomic strata," Ramanathan said. "From a national level, it seems like everyone is affected."

For every 1 percentage point below the mean regional unemployment rate, kids in affected areas had a 9 percent higher chance of using marijuana, a 7 percent higher chance of smoking tobacco, and a 6 percent higher chance of drinking when they were teenagers. Also higher: Gang affiliation (9 percent), petty theft (6 percent), major theft (11 percent), and the chance of getting arrested (17 percent). More serious problems -- like gun violence, assault, destroying property, and abusing hard drugs -- were not affected by higher unemployment rates.

But does this mean that kids born since 2009 will be acting out and getting into trouble a decade from now? Not necessarily. Though the correlation is strong, researchers say that being born during a recession doesn't necessarily doom you to a difficult life.

"We can't say high unemployment caused the effects," Ramanathan said. "We don't know what the mediating factors are."


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