Finding a silver lining: COVID-19 is shedding new light onto childhood poverty

By Jean Rhodes

Young people who are referred to mentoring programs face dramatically more challenges than most other youth. For example, an analysis of the two million young people aged six through eighteen that Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has served over the past decade revealed that the majority were from low-income families (78 percent) and/or lived in single-parent homes (61 percent). Similarly, a 2018 evaluation of 2,165 American youth participating in thirty nationally representative mentoring programs found that, compared to young people on average nationally, mentees were roughly twice as likely to live in extreme poverty, reside in a single-mother household, and have an incarcerated parent or family member.

Single-motherhood and the pandemic

These trends are only worsening during the pandemic. As Cassia Schuler recently observed “Single mothers endure immense difficulties in the face of the pandemic. Single mothers lead twenty-three percent of households with children under 18, and they comprise about 50 percent of working mothers with children under 18. Due to their complex circumstances, they are disproportionately likely to work in low-wage jobs and have inconvenient and irregular hours. Due to social distancing precautions, the vast majority of schools and daycares are closed. Single mothers face the daily responsibility and stress of needing to find ways to ensure their children are safe and have adequate care throughout the day. The need to stay healthy for their jobs requires social distancing and therefore limited contact with even family members. Managing this daily challenge is not easy. Women can’t call on friends and relatives and yet must venture outside the home to support their families. With recent high unemployment rates and existing low wages for women, especially single mothers, it is no surprise that food insecurity in single-mother households has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. 40.9% of mothers with children under 12 report household food insecurity since the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown up from about 15% in 2019…

The COVID-19 pandemic is proving that frontline jobs are not only relevant, but they are also indispensable. And yet, single mothers in those jobs put themselves and their households at risk while struggling to feed their families. A living wage is especially critical in the age of COVID-19. The Pandemic is raising awareness about the importance of paid sick and family leave, a benefit practically nonexistent in the frontline, low wage jobs. Only 47% of workers whose wages are in the lowest 25% income brackets receive paid sick leave. Single mothers make up a large portion of this group.” More generally, the pandemic may be a call to action for childhood poverty.

Childhood poverty and the pandemic

Although adults tend to be the focus of most debates about poverty and benefits, the pandemic has brought the issue of childhood poverty to the front, particularly as indices such as child hunger and homelessness have reached new levels.1 In a recent review reporter Jason DeParle writes that “most Americans don’t realize how unusual our child poverty rate is….That’s because hardships like hunger and eviction plague families well above the official poverty line ($26,200 for a family of four). It’s also because many more children experience poverty at some point in their childhoods than do so in a given year. Twenty years of presidential debates had passed without a question on the issue before one made it in this year, in the New Hampshire Democratic debate, where the answers generally lacked specificity or passion…Yet, there are many pressing reasons to focus on America’s exceptionally high childhood poverty rates…

Neuroscientists have shown how much of a child’s developmental trajectory is set during the first few years of life, before children even start school.Economists have shown that even a brief episode of poverty, especially in early childhood, can have life-long consequences—leading to fewer years of education, lower earnings, and worse health in adulthood.”
He points to a report published last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, as an “essential document for understanding child poverty in this atmosphere of crisis. The panel of fifteen was led by Greg Duncan, a distinguished economist from the University of California, Irvine and a careful empiricist, and included several conservatives, most notably Ron Haskins, a policy analyst and former Republican congressional aide who wrote the 1996 law “ending” welfare……Had nothing else come of it, the report would have been worth the effort simply for three pages of revised data that show that child poverty rates have already fallen in half since the 1960s, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty.” That finding undercuts a major tenet of modern conservativism: that the government’s antipoverty programs—food stamps, housing aid, health insurance, child care, job training, and the like—have been futile or worse…Over the last ten years or so, researchers have made special efforts to isolate the effect of income in the lives of poor families. They’ve done so in part by capitalizing on “natural experiments,” like sudden expansions of aid for one group of people that allow comparisons with other, similar groups. Evaluating this body of research, the academy delivered twin verdicts: “income poverty itself causes negative child outcomes,” and programs that raise incomes “improve child well-being…The National Academies estimate that child poverty costs the country as a whole $800 billion to $1.1 trillion a year—4.0 to 5.4 percent of GDP—including lower adult earnings, worse health, and higher crime. The good news about a loss so immense is that it translates into a recommendation for investment: money spent on poor kids will likely be “very cost-effective over time…” 

It appears that the pandemic-related upheavals and rapidly shifting public opinions in the importance of protections for children and families have created openings for helping our nation’s youth. Already, Congress has already spent trillions to stimulate the economy, help families, and provide unemployment benefits and the current session is focused on the struggles of families and the need to provide more help and services. This moment may be a turning point–and provide an opening to help lift more children out of poverty.