The long-term impact of COVID-19: Assessing the pandemic’s youngest victims
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blog posts examining how the pandemic has affected children, youth, and young adults in the U.S.
Possibly the broadest impact of COVID-19 lies in its economic ramifications. From the effect of lockdowns on labor practices and employment to the loss of community supports and services that require in-person attention, the pandemic pushed apart cracks in a faltering social safety net in America. As more households fall into poverty, children have become one of the pandemic’s biggest victims. Beginning today, a new Voices for Human Needs series of blog posts will highlight how the pandemic has harmed children and families in poverty, focusing on children of all ages and how key risk factors have evolved in the age of COVID-19.
Leading up to 2020, poverty rates among children were the lowest since 1973. This progress quickly stalled; school closures exacerbated food insecurity, job losses affected low-income households and racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately, and technology inequality caused educational inequities in remote learning, to name a few challenges that policymakers and service providers faced. Prior to the pandemic, according to Columbia University researchers, the poverty rate was 15 percent. Tax credits and short–term aid reduced the poverty rate to 12 percent in March; without that aid it would have increased to 19.4 percent. Child poverty reached a peak in August 2020 at a rate of 21.4 percent. Furthermore, the rates of poverty fall unequally across racial and minority lines, with 11 percent of white children in poverty compared to 24 percent among Black and Hispanic children. Census Household Pulse data show the impact of financial strain on hunger, estimating 7 to 11 million children living in food insecure households.
Rising poverty and hardship have important implications for children, and child welfare advocates and public officials should pay special attention to children in their policy responses to the pandemic. Experts in child development sum up child poverty as “deprivation” for children, affecting them both in short-term and long-term ways, as disruptions caused by the pandemic reach many children at a time of critical childhood development.
This is due to a developmental psychology phenomenon called toxic stress. When a child’s stress response is activated within an environment of supportive relationships and resources, then stress hormones are able to return to normal levels and the child develops a resilient stress response. However, when multiple causes of stress force long-lasting and extreme responses, this damages the brain architecture of the child and has lifelong consequences, according to Harvard researchers. These include a host of negative health outcomes such as depression, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke.
In the case of the pandemic, the financial and emotional stress being placed on families can place serious strain on otherwise functional families. The longer this stress lasts, the harder it is to create effective interventions. Furthermore, the full effects may not even be seen until later in life.
In this series, we will explore the scope of such social and financial stressors, what is being done to fix them, and how the Biden Administration is transforming family supports to strengthen our long-term ability to fight toxic stress and ensure a better, successful future for our country’s children and youth.