07/27/2010 03:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Recession Generation: Congress Must Act Now to Prevent Long-Term Damage

There is ample evidence that young people growing up or coming of age in a recession face long-term constraints on their future success. Jobless parents mean many more children are born into poverty, and poor children are more likely to suffer ill health and fall behind in school. Young workers entering the labor force in a recession -- even those who are college-educated -- earn less over the course of many years, even lifetimes, than those starting out in better times.

Not every poor child or young worker will experience these losses. But as a group, they will do worse than young people who were lucky enough to be born into or start work in good times. The Great Recession has plunged us into very bad times. The Recession Generation -- the workforce of our future -- will pay the price.

That is the conclusion of The Recession Generation: Preventing Long-term Damage from Child Poverty and Young Adult Joblessness, a new report released this week by my organization, the Coalition on Human Needs. With one in four children projected to be poor and 16-24 year olds making up nearly one-third of the unemployed, the lasting damage will not just harm them. Our nation's economic prosperity will suffer because so many of our future workers will be held back.

We would all prefer to think of this recession as a temporary downturn with no lasting consequences. But if we do nothing, we will handicap our future by leaving unacceptably large numbers of our workforce ill-prepared to add to our productivity and ill-equipped to provide for their own economic security.

The report paints a disturbing portrait of the damage inflicted by child poverty and youth joblessness. Citing studies that track people over decades, it shows that when child poverty persists, children are less likely to finish high school and are more likely to be poor in adulthood. The report looks at 20 counties in 10 states with very high levels of child poverty, and finds that those counties are far more likely to have high levels of adults in fair or poor health and to have fewer adults who have finished high school or beyond. For the most part, these counties' babies are more likely to have low birth weights, a predictor of future health problems.

The presence of all these factors does not demonstrate cause and effect. But it does suggest an interrelationship that we ignore at our peril. Nationwide, poor children are more likely to be overweight because their families cannot afford more nutritious food and instead resort to emptier - and cheaper - calories. We are now seeing an epidemic of type II diabetes related to the higher incidence of obesity. Other chronic illnesses like asthma are disproportionately present among low-income children. Children who are sick miss school days, fall behind and are more likely to drop out. As they get older, they will be among the very high numbers of jobless youth. More than one-quarter of 16-19 year olds who want jobs are unemployed; a shocking 40 percent of African American youth and 36 percent of Hispanic/Latino youth are jobless.

Will we consign the Recession Generation to a lifetime of diminished prospects? If we care about reducing the long-term federal budget deficit and putting our economy on a sustainable path we must do everything we can to ensure these future workers are productive contributors to our economy. They will not help develop the new technologies and products that lead to shared prosperity if they have not finished high school and struggle with poor health. By 2012 more than 40 percent of manufacturing jobs will require some college or post-secondary education. People who cannot compete for today's or tomorrow's jobs will not pay much in taxes, keeping the deficit high.

Some in Congress are acting as though the only course before us is to leave the Recession Generation behind. They are using the current deficit to justify ending or reducing investments we are now making in nutrition, health, jobs, education and other needed services. But large numbers of economists and budget experts agree that our economy will not fully recover if we cut hundreds of thousands of state and local jobs or reduce assistance for the poor and jobless. The Recession Generation report provides a further warning: the cuts we make now to reduce the short-term deficit will both stunt future economic growth and make the long-term deficit worse.

It does not have to be this way. The report lists proven federal investments that improve health and nutrition, reduce poverty, prepare young people for work, and save or create hundreds of thousands of jobs. We have the tools at our disposal to boost the economy while helping a generation of children and young adults escape the worst consequences of the recession. Why would we hesitate?