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Climate disasters and other shocks have long-term impacts on youth

A recent study conducted by researchers from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences reveals that traumatic events or “shocks,” such as climate disasters and loss of family income, may inflict a long-term toll on the academic progress and future food security of young people.

With climate change exacerbating the frequency of extreme weather events and other climate disasters, this problem could see a significant escalation.

Drawing from data gathered in Peru, the researchers found a direct correlation between exposure to a higher number of shocks in early life and lower reading and vocabulary test scores over time. 

Furthermore, the impacts extended to a reduced level of food security. The study, published in the journal Population Research and Policy Review, provides insights that could potentially inform policies to alleviate the effects of shocks.

Policies needed to minimize effects of shocks on youth

The research was led by Carolyn Reyes, a senior research associate at Public Wise. “As climate change leads to more frequent and severe weather events, and economic crises and an ongoing pandemic continue to create challenges for families, it’s critical for policies to help minimize the effects of these shocks,” said Reyes.

As possible solutions to the rising problem, Reyes suggests potential interventions such as unconditional cash transfers, expanded social protections, and more accessible and widely available insurance programs.

Moreover, the study indicated that recent shocks have a stronger association with negative learning and well-being outcomes.

In particular, Peruvian adolescents aged 15 who had experienced a shock within the preceding three to four years were found to have lower test scores, less food security, poorer health, and a greater burden of household duties.

Impact of climate disasters and shocks on youth is global

“Household shocks experienced by kids can take an important toll on health and learning no matter where they live,” said study co-author Professor Heather Randel. 

“For example, if teens have to help take care of siblings or assist their parents in earning income, this may divert resources and attention away from school. This in turn can affect the amount of time teens have to focus on schoolwork, or it may push them out of school altogether.”

It’s worth noting that children are often more vulnerable to shocks than other members of a household. Especially young children could face significant, long-lasting impairment to their physical and cognitive development due to early life shocks. 

This problem exacerbates for children from rural households, who could face additional hurdles due to environmental shocks. For example, children may be pulled out of school to compensate for family income loss due to crop failure in a drought.

Study focused on climate disasters and shocks on young people

Although previous studies have identified links between shocks and adverse educational outcomes, most of them relied on cross-sectional data instead of longitudinal data, or only examined the effects of one or two types of shock.

Reyes and Randell intended to expand the study to analyze the impacts of multiple shocks on education and multiple aspects of well-being over a 15-year time span.

The study leveraged data from the Young Lives Longitudinal Survey involving 1,713 children from Peru, collected over 15 years.

The researchers considered a diverse range of shocks, including economic or agricultural ones like job loss or crop failure, environmental ones such as floods or earthquakes, and family shocks like divorce or the death of a family member.

Several plausible explanations were proposed by the researchers for these findings. For instance, if a flood wipes out a family’s crops, children might be compelled to work more to make up for the lost income, detracting them from school or study. Conversely, a family member’s death could have psychological impacts that hinder school progress.

Reyes suggests that the implications of experiencing multiple shocks in early life could potentially extend far beyond adolescence and persist for many years. 

“Because education and early work experiences are so important for future economic and social success, exposure to shocks could create circumstances that result in a lifetime of hardship,” she said.

“Additional research could explore the exact mechanisms of how these shocks affect schooling and well-being, which could then help in the design of targeted and effective interventions.”


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