The COVID-19 Crisis Is Catastrophic for Children Too
This is likely a once-in-a-generation disaster, and it will affect every domain of human life. It will be traumatic. And trauma always falls hardest on the youngest among us. . . All the evidence suggests that children — and poor children especially — will bear an incredible burden during the coronavirus pandemic and the attendant economic shocks. But that evidence has trouble breaking into a national conversation dominated by mortality rates and work-from-home strategies. — Vann R. Newkirk II, “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” The Atlantic
On a daily basis, we are witnessing an ever-changing response to the spread of COVID-19 across the entire nation. Unlike natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, flooding, or man-made disasters like 9/11 that impact the entire nation but have devastating consequences that are more consequential to a specific and defined geographic area, the COVID-19 challenge is that it is a worldwide catastrophe and is creating both health and economic crises simultaneously.
While it is critically important to concentrate on protecting the health care of certain populations like people with special health care needs and senior citizens, the needs of health care providers to do their jobs and be safe themselves, the adoption of public health measures, the growing economic crisis and help for businesses, the needs for state and local governments to remain solvent and be responsive to their communications, and the transformation of work to temporary at-home strategies, policymakers and society must also think about how the most vulnerable in our society and the non-profit sector that cares for them are being impacted.
Federal, state, and local governments have responded with rapidly changing strategies to respond to a woefully under-resourced public health care system, and thereby, an unprepared health care infrastructure. While some have stepped up to the task at hand, others have failed to address the immense challenges that the combined health and economic crises have wrought.
If we learn nothing else from this: policy and policymakers matter. There are important reasons why some countries and some states are doing much better in response to the crisis than others.
Some of the measures being adopted, such as social distancing and sheltering in place, are being used for the purpose of flattening the curve of the epidemic, protecting the health of the most vulnerable, and mitigating the impact on an unprepared and overly stressed health care system. This has included closing schools, limiting the operations of nonessential businesses, urging or requiring people to work from home, and avoid social gatherings. This has society-wide ramifications and causes radically disparate impact on people, including children.
As Emily Benfer and Lindsay Wiley write for Health Affairs:
Many low-income individuals and families face significant challenges that prevent them from protecting themselves and others from COVID-19. Many lack the disposable income, flexible work schedules, and ability to do paid work from home. Nor do they have paid leave required to take care of children whose schools are closed and whose education attainment and social development may be set back for months. Others may be able to stay home, but their housing security may be at risk because they’ve lost their jobs or had hours cut back as a result of the pandemic.
Every Facet of a Child’s Life Is Being Disrupted
Every facet of the lives of children and families are being disrupted. Unfortunately, both the short-term and long-term consequences and challenges are not being fully considered or discussed. This crisis is severe and will last for months or even years to come. Moreover, the health and trauma, impact on education and child development, and economic consequences of this calamity will last well beyond the coronavirus itself.
Alice Forthergill, author of the Children of Katrina, explains, “Disasters last a really long time in the lives of children.” In fact, Forthergill’s research indicates there were profound long-term impacts on children of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago and that children have “unique experiences and distinct perspectives” in crises that must be considered and addressed.
At the conclusion of her research on Katrina’s impact on children, Forthergill explains, “. . .it is certain at this point that more attention needs to be paid to the welfare of children in disasters if we are going to reduce their vulnerability and lessen the impacts on them. . . .”
Sadly, far too often, those distinct needs or concerns are often ignored or dismissed even though children have very little control over their lives during a disaster. Kids don’t issue warnings or make either evacuation or shelter in place decisions for themselves or their families. Adults and policymakers make those decisions, and yet, often forget about the needs and lives of the children they are impacting. As Forthergill concludes:
Children are often thought of as hyper-resilient, like rubber balls that can bounce right back after disasters. It is true that children can endure tremendous challenges, yet without proper support, their odds of experiencing many negative health, educational, and behavioral outcomes increase. Our research demonstrated that how children fared after Katrina was not simply a matter of their individual traits, but also a result of social inequality and social structural constraints. Many of the children suffered immensely, had enormous losses, and struggled to find a balance as they and their families faced years of temporary homes and uncertainty.
Children Are Not Simply Small Adults
Policy solutions for children require varied responses for children adjusted for age, income, disability status, etc. The response cannot be monolithic.
As the National Commission on Children and Disasters report in 2010 explains:
Children are not simply small adults. Throughout this report, the Commission notes children’s unique vulnerabilities in disasters that must be addressed in disaster management activities and policies.
Unfortunately, as a nation, we have been unprepared. Across different areas, including disaster relief and recovery, mental health, physical health and trauma, emergency medical services, disaster case management, child care and early education, elementary and secondary education, child welfare and juvenile justice, sheltering standards, services, and supplies, and housing, Save the Children found that only 21 percent of the National Commission on Children and Disasters’s recommendations of importance to children had been fully adopted years after its recommendations had been set to Congress.
As Michael Freeman writes in his book The Moral Status of Children:
It is important that all those that formulate policy should be compelled to consider the impact their policies have on children.
Unfortunately, children are often an afterthought in policy debates. We have witnessed the failure to do so time and time again. Freeman adds:
All too rarely is consideration given to what policies. . .do to children. This is all the more the case where the immediate focus of the policy is not children. But even in children’s legislation the unintended or indirect effects of changes are not given the critical attention they demand. . .
But where the policy is not “headlined” children. . ., the impact on the lives of children is all too readily glossed over.
In the current health and economic emergency, the needs of children are being, once again, either ignored or discounted in a number of ways.
Failure to Fully Address the Needs of Children in “Stimulus” Checks
First and foremost, in the checks that individuals are getting across the country ($1,200 for individual adults, $2,400 per married couple, and $500 for each “qualifying child”), the first issue is that it treats children as if they are worth two-fifth of that of adults. The needs of a child — their shelter, their food, their care, their educational supports, etc. — are not 41.7 percent of the needs of an adult. And yet, that is what Congress deemed children and their needs were worth in the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.”
The consequence is that a single mom with two children ($2,200) will get less than two adults with no kids ($2,400). In light of the problems that parents are having due to school closures, the lack of paid leave policies in this country, job disruptions, and the lack of child care funding and support, the needs of families with children are greater now than ever. People all across this country are rediscovering the fact that schools (education, nutrition, community resource, the safety and protection of children, etc.), along with their hospitals, are one of the most important institutions serving our communities.
Beyond the much lower stimulus payments for dependent children, additional problems arise for children in a number of ways and at both ends of the age spectrum. For example, some babies born in 2019 (if the IRS uses a 2018 tax return for the family) and all babies born this year are not included until they file their 2020 tax returns in 2021. The needs of families with newborns are an immediate or “now” issue.
Furthermore, since children are only eligible for the Child Tax Credit up to age 17, young people who are 17- and 18-years-old or who are college students and dependent upon their parents for the majority of their income are set to receive nothing.
College students are rightfully quite upset by the oversight or purposeful denial.
Fortunately, legislation by Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) entitled the “All Dependent Children Count Act” (H.R. 6420) has been introduced to correct that inequity.
In addition, U.S. citizen children are being denied funding provided for by the “CARES Act” simply because of the citizenship status of one or more of their parents. This is a critical problem, as 1 in 4 children in this country has an immigrant parent. The coronavirus doesn’t care about the citizenship status of its victims and the closure of schools and other disruptions that have impacted children do not fall upon children differently based upon the citizenship status of kids or their parents.
We are all in this together.
Unfortunately, it is unclear whether Congress will provide an opportunity to fix these tragic inequities, as some Members of Congress are claiming there “may be no need for another round of government relief.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic response was initiated with a focus on protecting the health and well-being of more vulnerable populations, such as senior citizens and people with disabilities who are a greater health risk than children, many politicians are completely unaware or unconcerned about the plight of millions of children and young adults across this country.
To reiterate, every facet of the lives of children is being disrupted right now.
What Children and College Students Need:
- All children should be fully and equitably treated by the government, which includes the need for them to receive comparable and equitable “stimulus” payments for children to those of adults and to ensure newborns, teenagers, college students, and children regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status qualify for the full amount.
Child Poverty Will Rise and Children Will Disproportionately Bear That Burden
It is undeniable that the economic recession will have a number of long-term, negative ramifications on millions of our nation’s children. With millions of people losing jobs and families with children likely disproportionately among those, the rapidly growing crisis is that of child poverty.
Children begin this recession with a poverty rate that is already 54.4 percent greater than that for adults, but if past recessions are an indicator, economic downturns are often deeper and longer for kids.
A landmark study by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) entitled A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty explains:
. . .studies show significant associations between poverty and poor child outcomes, such as harmful childhood experiences, including maltreatment, material hardship, impaired physical health, low birthweight, structural changes in brain development, and mental health problems. Studies also show significant associations between child poverty and lower educational attainment, difficulty obtaining steady, well-paying employment in adulthood, and a greater likelihood of risky behaviors, delinquency, and criminal behavior in adolescence and adulthood.
In a 2012 review of the impact of the last recession on children, the Urban Institute reported, “There has been a nearly four-fold increase in the number of children with long-term unemployed parents and a 77 percent increase in SNAP caseloads over the past five years.” For children and families, economic recovery is often lengthy and slow.
Other comparable nations are doing far better for their children. New York Times reporter Jason DeParle writes:
About 17.2 percent of American children live on less than half the median income, said Timothy Smeeding, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, citing data from Luxembourg Income Study. That compares to 11.9 percent in Canada, 10.2 percent in the United Kingdom, and 9.4 percent in Ireland. The United States also spends less on needy families as a share of its economy.
Even before coronavirus and the accompanying economic crisis, we were failing millions of children living in poverty. To prevent rising child poverty leading to longer-term negative consequences for the next generation, we need urgent action to do more in support of struggling families and their children.
It is in all of our interest to address child poverty now and for our future. As the NASEM report explains, the negative impact of child poverty on the economy was costing the nation between $800 billion and $1.1 trillion annually before the recession. That will worsen if we fail to act.
What Children Need:
- Congress should adopt the recommendations of the landmark NASEM report to implement a Child Poverty Target and policies that would convert the Child Tax Credit to a Child Allowance, such as the legislation by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Suzan DelBene (D-WA), expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and other policy changes that would significantly cut child poverty in this country.
Ensure Access to Food for Infants and Children
As Benfer and Wiley point out:
About 22 million free and reduced-price lunches and 12.5 million breakfasts are served in school each day. More than 34 million households rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and 6.4 million rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
Schools are closed. A number of school districts are working to either school meals dropped off or picked up, but the reality is that the vast majority of children are not going to get meals through this or other initiatives like the collaboration between McLane Global, the Baylor Collaborative on Poverty and Hunger, and Pepsi to children in rural areas. These initiatives are important and should be applauded but are not enough to reach all the children in crisis.
Although the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” includes $1.2 billion for food and nutrition programs and was an important step, food insecurity remains a top concern and issue among the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
This leads to the need for further enhancements to SNAP and WIC. In the case of SNAP, it is a program that targets the most vulnerable citizens during this crisis, as more than 90 percent of SNAP benefits reach households at or below the poverty line and almost half of SNAP recipients are children and other 20 percent are senior citizens or people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the resources are inadequate as the average amount is just $1.40 per meal and families typically run out of assistance in the first few weeks every month. Monthly resources for SNAP, particularly for families with children because of school closures, must be increased.
It is also important to recognize and address the special challenges that parents with infants and toddlers are facing at this moment in time. We know that around half of all babies in the U.S. access WIC services and that we ensure that they have access to the food and formula that they need to get through this crisis.
What Children Need:
- As was done in the last recession, we urge an increase in the SNAP monthly benefit of at least 15 percent per household and an added 20 percent for families with children throughout this crisis that includes the economic recession. Furthermore, although WIC received $500 million in additional funding in the first stimulus package, we believe additional resources are necessary to deal with both COVID-19 and the economic downturn.
Ensure Children Access to Housing and Shelter
With respect to housing and shelter, there are numerous and unique challenges for families with children who are homeless. The system already defines homelessness in a way that treats these families and children as if they are invisible and precludes them from qualifying for assistance. Even worse, the ways that homeless families typically cope without a home is to double-up with other family members or friends, sleeping in cars, living temporarily in motels, etc., which were already terribly difficult, are all the more challenging due to school closures and sheltering in place demands from government.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was failing children before, but now things are worse. As Mihir Zaveri of the New York Times writes:
The coronavirus outbreak has only amplified those challenges, as it has for homeless people nationwide. People living in crowded shelters or doubled up with other families are more likely to contract the virus. They are less likely to have access to health care. Many who work low-wage jobs are likely to be laid off.
COVID-19 and the economic downturn will simultaneously increase the numbers of homeless families across the country but also increase the anxiety and potential risks to children and caregivers already homeless. School closures are particularly difficult, as it leaves homeless families and children without a key institution that provides education, meals, health services and therapy, safety and protection, respite, and child care.
In contrast to Canada, which has doubled the amount of funding to combat homelessness in its “stimulus” package, little has been done in the first three coronavirus packages to address the housing needs of children and families.
What Children Need:
- Funding for homeless children and families, such as through the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY), Runaway and Homeless Youth, Service Connect for Youth on the Streets, the Legal Services Corporation, and other related programs should be increased and action to block evictions and utility shutoffs should be included.
The Loss of Education in the Short- and Long-Term
The closing of schools all across the country has impacted every aspect of the lives of children and highlight the importance that our nation’s public schools play for families and our society. This is another lesson that should last well beyond this crisis and put an end to the constant attacks upon public schools and teachers.
Although parents are doing their best through this crisis, some elementary school children will have trouble learning to read or add, subtract, multiple, or divide, others will fail to learn the basics of science, junior high school kids are missing out on prerequisite coursework to prepare them for high school, and high school kids are missing out on courses, college visits, prom, and even graduation.
The important role that schools play for parents of children with disabilities or that are homeless cannot be understated. Schools help narrow the technology gap in society. Education and learning are challenging, at best, or completely lost at this moment in time.
Parents and businesses all across this country have reached a rapid understanding of the important role that schools and parents play — some with desperation and others with humor.
Savannah and Jenna talk challenges of being at home with the kids
Savannah Guthrie and Jenna Bush Hager exchange stories about getting frustrated with the kids while at home all day in…
While we work through this crisis, there is a longer-term funding threat due to the economic downturn that will likely negatively impact schools for years unless we take action to address that problem.
Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, writes:
Now is the time to learn from mistakes of the past, not repeat them.
Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of states’ revenues, and for good reason. Public education, as the Supreme Court wrote, is “the most important function of state and local governments.” It serves as the “foundation of good citizenship” and “democratic society.”
Yet, when the economy faltered in 2008, states made little, if any, attempt to shield schools. Several states even targeted education for cuts. Wisconsin waged a “war” on teacher benefits. North Carolina and Florida cut education spending from about $10,000 per pupil to $7,000 in just three years. States across the country incentivized students to leave public schools for cheaper alternatives: charter schools and voucher programs.
States then refused to replenish education funding even after the economy rebounded. The latest available data from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows that as late as the 2016–17 school year, education funding remained below pre-recession levels in real dollar terms in most states — sometimes up to 30 percent lower.
Students paid the price.
What Children Need:
- Congress should take additional action to support funding for schools and teachers and to end problems related to the “homework gap” for families without broadband access and educational needs of children with special needs in the interim. Moreover, Congress must make a long-term commitment to providing on-going fiscal relief to state and local governments in the long-term to keep them from cutting funding to schools throughout the fiscal crisis. Children will already be behind due to school closures this year and keeping schools fully funded should protect their future success.
At All Costs, Children Should Be Protected From Harm
The children that are the responsibility of society, including children that have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by their parents, kids in the juvenile justice system, and immigrant kids in detention centers are at particular risk.
We are seeing numerous reports and evidence that child abuse and domestic abuse is increasing right now, but that state systems, departments, and courts are closed down or minimally operating.
Child neglect and abuse tend to track with greater traumatic events, economic instability, and stress. Sadly, they might be tracking already. Reportedly, a single hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, has treated six children with severe physical-abuse-related injuries. Doctors believe the cases are related to parents’ stress over the pandemic.
For workers in child protective services, group homes for foster kids, the juvenile justice system, and in the immigration system that are overseeing the well-being of children, they do not have training or resources that are critical to protecting both the children and the workers. This all is deeply concerning and these kids are, by definition, our responsibility and are still being neglected or ignored.
What Children Need:
- By definition, children in government custody rely upon the government to help them with every aspect of their lives, including their health and well-being. Every precautions and safety must be taken to protect vulnerable children, particularly those in group settings. At-risk children need extra protections and attention rather than less.
Children Need a Children’s Commissioner to Coordinate and Better Serve Children
When a child cries out for help, whether it is a sick child, a child seeking an education, an abused child, a hungry child, a homeless child, or a child fleeing violence and in search of refuge, adults should listen and most Americans do.
Unfortunately, our nation’s policymakers often treat children as merely an afterthought. They have powerful interest groups that are constantly demanding and receiving their full attention, and so children are often ignored. There is a reason that children represent nearly one-quarter of the population but just 7.21 percent of the federal budget.
Across the board, children desperately need a special advocate in the government to hear their unique needs, raise their concerns, and help better coordinate services across the government. This is particularly true during a national crisis. Children desperately need an independent Children’s Commissioner.
Children are exceptionally vulnerable. The fact is that violence, abuse, injustice, and discrimination against children in families, schools, prisons, and institutions can best be eliminated if children are enabled and encouraged to tell their stories and be heard by people with the authority to take action. The consequence of the silencing or dismissal of the voices of children and the harm they experience has the effect of protecting the abusers rather than the children.
A Children’s Commissioner could examine policy choices, issue reports, and make recommendations to Congress and federal agencies on ways to coordinate their efforts and build on best practices, research, and lessons learned with respect to the impact of proposed policies on children. This is in the best interest of our nation, as the cost of failing children is enormous in both human and socio-economic terms in the long term.
What Children Need:
- Children need an independent Children’s Commissioner to listen to, raise, protect, and coordinate services for children.
Children Must Be Treated as a Priority and Not as an Afterthought
We will come out on the other side of COVID-19 and the economic downturn, but we should do so in a manner where the lives of children are protected to the best extent that we can and that we make sure they have the opportunity to live the “American dream” as have past generations.
Jamie Margolin, a climate justice activist, made the intergenerational point:
My generation is giving up our youth — our schooling, our fun and our freedom — so that you can see next year. When this is over, you may have to keep giving something up so that we can see the next century.
The issue of climate change is a perfect example of how issues of importance to kids are often brushed aside or ignored by other generations. This is the sad reality for children and young adults.
. . .the most likely outcome is that this pandemic, like most others in history, will again uncover our most basic inequities. For children and their parents, that might mean that mortality rates are only the beginning of the story.
COVID-19 and the economic recession are just two more crises that compound the underlying health, education, social, and political problems that children have been facing before the current calamity.
That must change. Our children deserve nothing less.
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