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How COVID-19 Hurts Children

The US has not only the world’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths, but also the highest child poverty rate among rich democracies. With unemployment skyrocketing and government support expiring, the situation for children is set to deteriorate further, with severe long-term consequences.

DURHAM/NEW YORK – Children are generally believed to be less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults, especially the elderly. But they are far from safe from the crisis. Beyond uncertainties about COVID-19’s direct health effects, children are highly vulnerable to the economic consequences of the pandemic, which threatens to push 71-100 million people into extreme poverty worldwide.

The risks are particularly acute in the United States, which has not only the world’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths and regularly sets new single-day infection records, but also the highest child poverty rate among rich democracies. Black, Hispanic, and Native American children suffer higher poverty rates than their white counterparts.

With unemployment skyrocketing and government support being rolled back, the situation is set to deteriorate even further, with severe long-term consequences. A large body of evidence shows conclusively that poverty is highly detrimental to children’s cognitive development, emotional stability, and health, owing to factors like food insecurity, lack of quality health care, inferior community resources, and stressful home environments. The newest neuroscience research suggests that poverty alone may also harm the brain’s growth and functioning. All of this translates into fewer years of schooling completed, lower lifetime earnings, and a higher chance of landing in jail or becoming a teen parent.

The COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating poverty in all of its dimensions. For starters, food insecurity more than tripled among households with children in the US – from 9.3% to 29.5% – from February to mid-May, even as enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program increased by nearly 20%.

Like poverty, food insecurity disproportionately affects non-white households. Recent data show that more than 36% of black families and 45% of Hispanic families have cut spending on food during the pandemic, compared to about 24% of white families.

School shutdowns have only made matters worse. Prior to the pandemic, 22 million US children relied on free or subsidized school lunches, funded by the National School Lunch Program. School closures also cut off children’s access to valuable daily support and guidance from teachers, counselors, and nurses. Many have no supervised recreation time at home. And while online learning has helped to mitigate the educational losses, it has certainly not offset them, especially for the poor, who often lack their own computers or reliable Internet access. As a result, the education gap between the most and least disadvantaged is widening in the US. And similar effects have been documented globally.

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Meanwhile, the combination of less income and increased pressure on health systems has caused many children to miss out on routine preventive and other nonemergency care. In some US states, half of young children are not receiving routine vaccinations during the COVID-19 crisis.

Finally, stress is on the rise, particularly among recently unemployed low-wage workers. Such workers – especially those with children – report high levels of depressive symptoms, regardless of whether they are receiving unemployment benefits. This can be highly detrimental to children’s physical and emotional wellbeing and development.

In the US, all of this has happened despite the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included one-time payments to most households, as well as a $600-per-week increase in unemployment benefits. When these provisions expire – expanded unemployment insurance at the end of this month, and other provisions at the end of the year – child poverty could soar by 30-50%, or about five million children.

This outcome can be averted. In many European countries, governments have instituted wage guarantees for workers, thereby preventing spikes in unemployment and poverty. Even before the pandemic, these countries, as well as Canada, had more generous child-focused social policies. With social spending on children about double what it is in the US (as a share of GDP), it is no surprise that child poverty rates are much lower: around 11% in France, 7% in Germany, and 13% in Canada.

One reason why the US does not offer similar support is partly a mindset: many Americans fail to understand the myriad complex dynamics that contribute to poverty, and instead blame the poor for their own predicament. By this logic, it is up to parents, not governments, to ensure that their children’s needs are met.

Yet the US does have programs in place that have minimized poverty among the elderly. Now is the time to implement similar support for children.

The first step should be to extend the aid provided by the CARES Act, including expanded unemployment benefits. A more generous Earned Income Tax Credit and a higher minimum wage would also help. In particular, the CARES Act provision expanding the Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,000 for children over six, and to $3,600 for children under six, should apply to all, regardless of family income. And this provision should be made permanent – a move that would slash child poverty by roughly 40%.

In lieu of this, US leaders might consider monthly unconditional cash payments (or benefits that function like cash) for families with children, similar to those in many other countries. According to a forthcoming Columbia University study, Canada’s cash-allowance program provides around $4,000 per year, with payouts gradually tapering as family income grows. A similar policy in the US would reduce child poverty by more than half. Among Black children, the reduction would be even larger.

When children are left to grow up in poverty, everyone suffers. In fact, child poverty costs the US more than $1 trillion each year, through lost productivity and the increased costs of health care, crime, and child homelessness. If the moral imperative of protecting our children is not convincing enough for US leaders, perhaps the economic one will be enough to galvanize action.

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