Children of the Recession Worry, and Work, in the Face of Family Crises

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

First his mother was laid off. Then his father, too. Demetri Wolfe-Maris quietly decided it was time for him to find work, perhaps at the Wendy's restaurant near his District school.

But when Demetri mentioned his plan to a counselor, she reminded him of one crucial glitch: He's only 10.

"I'm so sorry I'm not old enough to work," the fifth-grader told his mother that night.

Tough times have trickled down to the youngest generation. Many children of today's recession are reeling along with their parents. Some have been uprooted from their homes and schools. Others are pitching in to pay the bills or seeing fewer of the extras they once enjoyed: camps, vacations, sports teams, allowances.

The economy of 2009 has reshaped some expectations about growing up.

Judi and Jake Sheffer's teenage daughter has put off learning to drive. With the Sheffers about to lose their Wheaton home to foreclosure, they can't afford the car insurance. They also can't afford many of her performing arts activities. And there will be no family vacation this summer. At night, the teen often wakes to find her sleepless mother pacing.

Edgar Gutierrez, 17, said his worries began after his mother was laid off and their car repossessed. Now he has trouble concentrating, and his grades are down at Gaithersburg High School. "I think, 'I need to get a job, I need to be helping my parents out,' " he said.

At Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, more teenagers are helping support their families, said Principal Jim Fernandez. Some talk about forgoing college. Fernandez has reached out to parents through letters and automated phone messages, offering financial help for everything from prom tickets to field trips.

"I just don't want kids to miss out on anything because of the economy," he said. For some, this might be unavoidable.

Miguel Aleman, 18, a senior at Clarksburg High School, has a part-time job and recently took a second one on a cleaning crew to help his parents. He loves soccer and dreams of college but knows the priority now is finances at home. A year ago, as his family was mired in foreclosure, he debated dropping out of high school to work full time. His father, who had labored six days a week in construction, could find almost no work at all.

Finally, his father was able to borrow money to move the family into a mobile home, and Aleman, the eldest, will graduate in June -- the first in his family. Still, he might have to join the military to be able to attend college. "I wish I could go right after high school, but I don't know how I would do that," he said.

In a wide range of families, children have downshifted.

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