This KIDS COUNT policy report examines how households with children are faring during the pandemic. Its findings are primarily based on surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread economic damage and isolated families in unprecedented ways. Parents have had to juggle both educating and caring for their children and millions of Americans have lost not just their jobs, but their sense stability, source of income and health care.
To succeed now and after the pandemic, families must have good health, both physical and mental, and the health care to maintain it. They must also have food and the money to buy it; safe, stable housing and communities; education and the means to access it; and quality child care so that parents can work.
Child Well-Being Before the Pandemic
Child well-being was slowly but steadily improving right after the Great Recession. Yet, troubling signs — indicating a halt or reversal of progress — were evident even before the coronavirus crisis took hold in the United States. One example: The share of children without health insurance ticked up from 5% in 2018 to 6% in 2019.
Child Well-Being During the Pandemic
In the fall of 2020, one in eight households with children lacked health insurance. No coverage constitutes a critical vulnerability — for both health and economic reasons — for any family. Although the share of kids without health coverage during the pandemic is unknown for now, history has shown that children are more likely to have insurance if their parents do.
Mental health, already a pressing issue for young people, has become an acute concern for millions in 2020. One in five people in households with children (21%) have reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless in the previous week, underscoring the importance of access to mental health care and treatment.
Uncertainty and instability were already a daily reality for millions of families before the pandemic hit. Since March 2020, a growing tide of lost income and jobs have destabilized millions more families.
Absent action to prevent an eviction and foreclosure crisis, the data indicate a looming housing catastrophe for communities of color. Food insecurity — already a problem for more than one in 10 households before the pandemic — has also increased. At the same time, the pandemic has dramatically disrupted child care throughout the nation, with centers forced to close and many parents left scrambling for alternatives.
Nearly all schools in the United States closed for at least part of spring 2020. By fall, the academic year kicked off differently across the nation. Some children were attending school in person, others were learning remotely and still others were following a hybrid approach. Many kids have found virtual learning, as well as the changing learning conditions, challenging.
Recommendations on Strengthening Children and Families During and After the Pandemic
Put racial and ethnic equity first in policymaking. Steps here involve using disaggregated data, engaging community stakeholders, and ensuring the policymaking process is informed by those hardest hit by the pandemic. This approach should underpin any concrete policy actions.
Prioritize the physical and mental health of all children. This includes making the vaccine available, regardless of cost, and strengthening the Affordable Care Act. To promote mental health, particularly in times of crisis, policymakers should push for improving student-to-school-counselor ratios per the guidance of mental health professionals.
Help families with children achieve financial stability and bolster their well-being. Changes here include expanding access to child care and unemployment insurance for part-time and gig economy workers, low-wage workers. Federal policymakers should advocate for temporary housing assistance programs aimed at heading off a foreclosure or eviction crisis. They should also expand housing programs most frequently accessed by families with children and eliminate barriers to accessing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit.
Ensure schools are better and more equitably funded and ready to meet the needs of students disparately affected by the pandemic. This includes protecting school funding from the economic effects of the pandemic, building maintenance-of-equity requirements into relief packages, and addressing disparities in technology access at home and in the classroom.