By Chris Adams

Sept. 16, 2020 – New data indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic is hurting America’s children in measurable ways — and the poorest children are faring worst.

One local study found that 59% of low-income first-graders had experienced a decrease in family income since the pandemic began and 49% experienced food insecurity.

“Poverty is a public health crisis in the United States,” said Anna Johnson, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University who conducted the study among low-income children in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It’s incredibly widespread and it’s known to have very detrimental impacts on a host of lifelong outcomes.”

In a briefing for the National Press Foundation, Johnson and another poverty expert, Hirokazu Yoshikawa of New York University, detailed how economic shocks, social isolation and increased stress have affected the nation as a whole. Poor and low-income children suffer the ill-effects even if they never catch the virus.

Johnson had ongoing poverty studies in the field when COVID hit, and she was able to quickly pivot and ask her subjects additional questions about how the pandemic was affecting their stress, mental state, education and finances.

Pre-pandemic, finances were tight enough: The federal poverty line is just under $20,000 for a three. Imagine, Johnson said, spending $1,000 a month on rent for a place that could accommodate three people plus $500 a month on food. “You've pretty much maxed out that budget right there,” she said. “That doesn’t include transportation childcare, medical needs, household basics, education supplements, et cetera. So the poverty line is a very low bar on basic needs.” (The latest poverty numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.)

Johnson said that poverty increases the risk of household food insecurity and parental depression, something that she saw in the Tulsa study.

The SEED Study has been following families since 2016, starting when children were 3 years old; they were in first grade when COVID hit. Johnson and her colleagues put questions into the ongoing study to ask parents and teachers about food insecurity, mental health and remote learning.

Not only did 59% of parents report a decrease in family income, but 49% experienced food insecurity, and were twice as likely to report feeling depressed as those who had sufficient food.

Nearly half of parents said their children experienced increased emotional or behavioral problems. While schooling suffered, 20% of students never communicated with their teachers once remote learning started in the spring, the survey found.

“The school year effectively ended in March,” she said. The effect is comparable to the well-documented summer learning loss but adds an additional three or four months to the slide in educational achievement, she said.

Yoshikawa, professor of globalization and education at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University, said that while COVID has made the situation for many families dire, the country might be in a moment where change is possible.

“What COVID has done is to reveal … the inequities that have existed and continue to exist in the United States,” Yoshikawa said. “This historic moment is one in which we can really think about an opportunity to strengthen families and communities.”

The child care system, for example, was broken before the pandemic hit. Child care routinely eats up 20% of a family’s income – sometimes up to 40%. Meanwhile, child care providers earn poverty wages, averaging $10.82 an hour. Many receive no benefits, including health insurance for their own children.

“So we have a complete mismatch here between both the resources available and the kind of support for the child care workforce and therefore threats to children’s development, as well as implications for stress and the economic wellbeing of families and parents,” Yoshikawa said.

He advocates for guarantees that would limit child care costs no more than 7% of income for many families, as well as universal, high-quality preschool.