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Thanks To Needless Covid School Lockdowns, Your Kids’ Lifetime Earning Potential Plummeted

Data suggests Covid-era learning losses will have long-term negative effects on kids’ lifetime earnings and the overall economy. 


The Covid pandemic has affected all of us differently, but no one lost more than America’s youth.

The learning losses among American children during the lockdowns became apparent last fall after the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released data showing a precipitous decline in test scores of fourth and eighth graders. Based on this data, Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University estimated the economic cost of these learning losses will have substantial long-term negative effects on students’ lifetime earnings and the overall U.S. economy. 

Hanushek focused his economic analysis on the eighth-graders because students in this grade are at a developmental inflection point and their academic performance offers a crucial indicator for their future success. This is why the test scores reported by NAEP data are so concerning. In 2022, the average reading score for eighth graders declined by 3 points compared to 2019 and “was lower compared to all previous assessment years going back to 1998.” The average eighth-grade math score decreased by 8 points compared to 2019 and “was lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2003.”

Hanushek’s analysis has three key findings. First, today’s learning losses suggest significant future economic losses for students because extensive research has shown that “those with higher achievement and greater cognitive skills earn more.” Hanushek estimates “the average student during the pandemic will have 5.6 percent lower lifetime earnings. This figure compares the expected earnings given the eight-point loss in math achievement to what could have been expected without the pandemic.” 

Depending on which state the student was in during the pandemic, students’ learning losses and associated future-income effects are drastically different across states. For instance, students from Utah who lost 2.7 points in math scores on average can expect less than a 2 percent loss of lifetime income. On the other hand, students from Delaware who saw their math scores drop more than 12 points on average can expect nearly a 9 percent loss in future income. The wide ranges have more to do with how states responded to Covid  (i.e., the length of school closures and remote learning) than the quality of their public education before the pandemic. 

For instance, Massachusetts was known for the high quality of its public education pre-Covid. But during the pandemic, the state kept its school closed until May 2021. Consequently, Massachusetts saw its eighth graders’ reading scores decline by more than 4 points and math scores by more than 10 points in 2022 compared to 2019. Hanushek estimates that such learning losses will cost the Massachusetts students in the Covid cohort an average of 7.6 percent lower lifetime earnings. On the other hand, Texas reopened its schools in the fall of 2020. The state saw its eighth graders’ reading scores decline by less than 1 point, and math scores drop by about 7 points in 2022 compared to 2019.

Thus, on average, Texas students in the Covid cohort can expect 4.9 percent lower lifetime earnings. This state-by-state comparison demonstrates how much policy responses to the pandemic, rather than the pandemic itself, are responsible for American students’ future success and prosperity. 

Hanushek’s second finding is that students’ learning losses will significantly affect the economy of the state they reside in because a state’s economic growth is highly dependent on the quality of its labor force. A future labor force with lower skills and achievement will result in an average of 1.9 percent drop in a state’s economy, measured by the gross domestic product (GDP).

The more significant the learning loss in the state, the bigger the drop in its GDP. For instance, Utah can expect a 0.6 percent decline in GDP, while Delaware may see a 2.9 percent loss. The learning losses during the pandemic will cost California 1.4 percent of its GDP. It may sound like a small number, but given the size of California’s economy, the present value of 1.4 percent GDP is about $1.2 trillion, representing the most significant economic loss among all 50 states.

Hanushek’s third finding is the most devastating. He concluded that the learning and economic losses would become permanent if schools just returned to business as usual before the pandemic, and even extending school days and individual tutoring would not make all the learning losses go away. His pessimistic assessment was based on evidence from other nations. For example, students in Germany who had shorter school years earned lower incomes throughout their lives as working adults. In Argentina, “earnings at age thirty to forty for those who were primary-school students in provinces with the most [teachers] strikes are significantly below earnings of those in less strike-prone provinces.”

During the pandemic, American students experienced many similar disruptions in their education and lifestyles. Kids were subjected to prolonged school closures, ineffective remote learning, and in some blue states, repeated teachers’ strikes. Those who claim kids are resilient and they can make up for their learning losses later don’t know what they are talking about.

According to The Wall Street Journal, research shows “the foundation for adulthood is laid in the first 1,000 days of life. IQ scores begin to stabilize starting around the age of 5.” Therefore, the negative effect of missing in-person classes for months or years during children’s most crucial years will likely last for a lifetime, and there is no easy mitigation.

The most infuriating aspect of this national tragedy is that American students’ learning losses and lifetime income losses could have been prevented. Data from the early days of the pandemic showed that Covid affects children much less than it does older adults.

In March 2020, Joy Pullmann of the Federalist warned federal and state governments not to make a massive gamble about Covid because “they may not only be betting our entire economy but our nation’s future. Thus it’s imperative that they not make foolish choices.”

A few months later, Harvard’s Martin Kulldorff, Oxford’s Sunetra Gupta, and Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya, authors of The Great Barrington Declaration, called for an end of lockdowns and reopening businesses and especially schools because “keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.” Unfortunately, too many adults in charge, from public health officials to teachers’ unions, driven by either fear or ideology, chose to sacrifice American children’s education and well-being instead. 

And when overwhelming evidence reveals the damage these adults have done to our children, they suggested that everyone agree on a pandemic amnesty.

Pullmann noted that “there can be no amnesty on lockdowns without a national reckoning” because “Accountability is essential to social order and advancement. A good society does not ignore gross harms people commit against others. It seeks to rectify them to the extent reasonably possible, for the sake of justice and to discourage future wrongs.”

One form of reckoning has already taken place. The Wall Street Journal reported that traditional “public schools in the U.S. have lost more than a million students since the start of the pandemic,” which means less funding for school districts and fewer jobs for members of the teachers’ union. Meanwhile, “Charter-school enrollment rose more than 7% from the 2019-20 school year to the 2020-21 school year,” and homeschoolers have more than doubled

American parents are sending an unmistakable message to teachers’ unions and politicians they control. They’re finally saying: “Since you don’t care about my kid, we are out of here, and we don’t need you.”

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