Sunday, January 1, 2012

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

New Year's Day--a time to reflect on the past, remember the joys, and look expectantly forward to a fresh start.  However, for many families, both looking back and looking ahead is filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

As school counselors, we know that it is no great secret that economic times have been challenging in the last several years.  Jobs have been lost and companies have had to lay off large portions of their workforce.  Those who are now unemployed can spend months and months looking for work, and when they do find it they often take jobs at much lower salaries with fewer, if any, benefits.  NPR has been running a series called "Road Back To Work" over the last year, and the installment on Friday updated listeners on several of the people they have been following.  The men and women they are tracking have all lost their jobs in the last several years and the stories detail their attempts to find new ones.  In this latest story, many of the participants have found new work after months and months of endless job fairs, sent resumes, and interviews, only to lose them again anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

In the NPR story, one of the women states that, "I don't know. I never thought life would turn to this for me." (source: While, contrary to popular stereotypes, there has never truly been a standard picture of what someone who is unemployed looks like, this is a time where people who have played by all the rules (you know the rules--do well in school, get a college degree, get some training beyond the college degree, get job paying good wage with good benefits, live happily ever after) find that even though they've done everything "right," they still face unemployment.  Many news reports, such as this one from CNN this last month, raise the concern that the current generation of workers will struggle more than that of their parents.  Thus, in my job I have worked with families who never thought that they would be struggling in the way that they currently are, ending up in situations where one or both parents has no job, no source of income.  Not only does this pull the rug out from underneath the adults, it also can wreak havoc on the whole family.

Losing a job does mean losing the knowledge of where the money is going to come from, but it has much larger ramifications on a family.  Without benefits, family members may decide to forgo necessary medical and dental care, or, if they do go to the doctor, dentist, or ER, they can rack up quite large medical debt.  Without a salary, families may not participate in the additional educational opportunities they may once have, whether that is tutors, field-trips, or participation in sports or the arts.  Without a salary, families are one mechanical issue away from losing reliable transportation.  Without a salary, families may struggle to provide basic needs like food, shelter and clothing.  This can happen within a few months of losing a job.  A friend of mine shared with me the link to Spent, an interactive website designed by the Urban Ministries of Durham (a group that works with the homeless in Durham, NC).  This website walks you through the difficult choices and decisions many of our families have to make in these tough economic times.  I would highly recommend that you click on the link to Spent and go through the website--it helps to give you a touch of the perspective of what many families are struggling with today.

What can we, as school counselors, do to help our students and their families, through these difficult circumstances?
  • Connect them with resources: free and reduced lunch.  For families who have never had to work through unemployment and job loss, navigating the paperwork and the system for accessing things like free and reduced lunch will be completely new.  Sometimes it may be that we have to carefully and compassionately ask questions of our students and families if we or other school personnel happen to notice that there may be a change in circumstances, and then help to educate then on any services that may be available.  Further, having a good relationship with your cafeteria manager and food service is invaluable--they can help you to move things along more quickly.
  • Connect them with resources:  social services.  I am truly fortunate in my current position that we have an amazing school social worker in our building as well as central offices that assist with our homeless students.  If you do not have people who can serve as these resources, it is important that you then at least know who families  can contact--phone numbers, e-mails, etc.--if they find they are going to lose their house and be on the streets, or if they no longer have medical insurance and need to apply for Medicaid or state-insurance for their children.  Perhaps they need clothes and shoes for their growing children.  Connect with other counselors, social service providers, or mental health workers in your locale to get referrals, and then keep a list handy so that it is there when you need it.  Further, the parents and guardians may ask you if you know of any jobs or job centers within your community--it's never a bad idea to have one or two of those on the list, as well.
  • Connect them with resources:  programs and considerations within the school.  Oftentimes students who qualify for free/reduced meals also qualify for waived or reduced fees for arts programs and athletics.  Further, your PTSO may have a special fund to quietly help students who need a little bit of extra help to pay for things like field trips or prom tickets.  If they do not, perhaps you can help to start such a fund.  Additionally, these students may need some extra academic help but not have the money to pay for it.  Perhaps your National Honor Society or National Junior Honor Society has student tutors looking for extra hours, or perhaps there is a local community organization that sponsors free tutoring either in the schools or at local libraries or even churches, temples, mosques, or synagogues. 
  • Check in more frequently with that student(s).  Once you become aware of a family whose economic situation has changed in a significant way, it is important to build a relationship with that student and the family so that you can offer assistance and resources should the need arise.  Further, checking in periodically with the student to see how things are going is good for two reasons.  First, it will give you information as to if there are any further changes, and secondly, it will strengthen your relationship with the student so that he/she will be more likely to come to you on their own should the need arise.
  • Advocate for your students.  In the Spent game, it comes up that often children will not eat free/reduced lunch because of the stigma.  In my district, all of our students use account numbers when they go through the lunch line, so there is no immediate recognition available to other students simply based on when/where/how they get their lunch.  If your school still has a program that makes the lunch status of students transparent, perhaps you can advocate for change.  It is important to honor the confidentiality of students who are eligible for free/reduced services.  Indeed, it can be necessary for some faculty members, coaches, and arts directors to know that a family is going through hard times, but it is helpful to remind them that this is not something to ever be discussed publicly and that the information is private.
We may not be able to find jobs for all of our families that may need one, but we can help to connect them with resources to make this period in their lives just a little bit easier.  Most important, we can do our best to make sure that the lives of our students, at school, remain steady and consistent, giving them a place that they can rely on even amidst change and uncertainty at home.

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