Sign welcoming students back after COVID restrictions
Photo credit: K. Mitch Hodge, unsplash

A new report by the Mitchell Institute has found the number of potentially vulnerable children in Australia will increase significantly as a result of COVID-19 related unemployment and underemployment. The Mitchell Institute’s modelling estimates that 1.4 million preschool and school children are now in families experiencing employment stress. This is up from 615,000 children in 2016 – a jump of around 130%.

COVID-19, employment stress and student vulnerability in Australia uses census data and the Grattan Institute’s unemployment modelling to examine how and where children will be impacted by employment stress. The results are sobering. We estimate that the number of preschool and school children living with employment stress in the family has more than doubled nationally, with many regions experiencing increases of 200-300%.

Lower-income families will be hit hardest, but job and income loss will be felt across all socio-economic groups and regions. Outer suburban areas and regional areas that are reliant on the hardest hit industries will also be profoundly impacted. Even with measures in place to speed up economic recovery, reducing levels of unemployment and underemployment could be a slow process.

This report examines the impact of employment stress on children’s learning, development, health and wellbeing. It provides an overview of international evidence, including research covering previous recessions.

The evidence shows that the impact of employment stress on children’s outcomes can be profound. Children whose parents are experiencing involuntary unemployment can be 15% more likely to repeat a grade at school, more likely to leave school early, and less likely to attend university. Parental unemployment is also associated with increased probability of a range of health and wellbeing challenges for children and young people, including greater social isolation, poorer nutrition and a higher prevalence of social and emotional issues.

Schools and early learning services will be on the front line in limiting negative impacts on children. The report recommends a range of urgent measures and longer term reforms designed to support students, reduce inequality, and improve the stability of the early childhood education sector.

Recommendations include guaranteed access and affordability to early childhood education and care; prioritisation of health and wellbeing; scaling up programs such as breakfast clubs and counselling; identifying and supporting students who are disengaging from school; and ensuring that funding is adequate to meet the challenge of increased student vulnerability.


Kate Noble
Former Education Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute
Peter Hurley
Education Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute