What’s missing that could soothe families’ ‘pandemic pain points?’
Government policies that could fill gaps in technology for online school, tutoring and child support payments could alleviate problems in a uniquely unsettling year
COVID-19’s spread has created “pandemic pain points” for families with children, exacerbated by lack of specific policies that experts say could help.
“The financial crisis for some has been broader, deeper and more sustained than economic downturns in the past,” said Leslie Boissiere, vice president of external affairs for The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which recently released a report on how badly the pandemic has hurt families in 2020.
Among the findings of “Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and the Urgent Need to Respond:”
- 1 in 5 families worry they won’t be able to make their next housing payment.
- About one-third are “very concerned” they’ll at some point lose their homes to eviction or foreclosure.
- As many as 14% of families struggle to get enough food.
- 1 in 8 families nationally no longer have health insurance. Boissiere said that in Texas and Georgia, lack of insurance rose to 1 in 4 families.
- 1 in 5 families are saying they’ve been depressed in the past week.
The findings were based on households with minor children in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 Household Health Survey, conducted from March through October.
“We’re seeing a significant impact on families’ ability just to provide the basics for their children. And it’s creating a significant impact on the health and well-being of both the parents and the children,” Boissiere said.
Those aren’t the only challenges families have faced in the pandemic, according to experts asked to name policies the United States does not have that could have helped. From lack of technology for online school to financial help and access to tutors, families have struggled in this uniquely unsettling year, they said.
Most of the recommended policies would require federal action to set them up. States in some cases would be responsible to see them put into action. But experts say struggling families would be helped both during this pandemic and beyond if these policies were implemented.
ABCs of technology
Access, broadband and computers could be the ABCs of online schooling — and many families didn’t have resources to make the grade. The Annie E. Casey Foundation found access was particularly uneven for online learning — though it was required by most schools at least part of the time this year.
“A University of Washington study found one-third of households with school-age children don’t have broadband” or adequate computers, Boissiere said, adding a similar number of families lack a quiet place for kids to “attend” online classes or do homework. Half lack someone to help with schoolwork.
Discouraged, some students simply quit showing up for class, the foundation said.
“We should expect a significant learning loss for kids and in 2021 we know that state budgets are going to be under tremendous amounts of pressure,” which historically has led to cuts in school budgets, said Boissiere. “We have to make sure that schools are held harmless to the extent that we can.”
Shawn Fremstad, senior fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, believes children would benefit if America borrowed an idea from several other wealthy countries: advance child support, sometimes called “advance on maintenance” to benefit divorced or separated parents who have custody of children.
“The basic gist is that (the government) pays custodial parents a minimum child support amount — I think typically around $200 a month — in ‘advance’ of noncustodial parents’ monthly payments and regardless of whether the noncustodial parent actually pays,” he said.
That policy could have helped because “unpartnered mothers have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic recession and it’s probably also the case that noncustodial (mostly) fathers of their children have seen huge employment losses and aren’t able to keep up with child support,” Fremstad said.
Norway, for instance, has advance child support to ensure a custodial parent receives at least some financial help. And advance child support was a recommended policy in the National Academy of Sciences’ recent “Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty.”
In the United States, some laws pertaining to child support are enacted federally, but enforcement is typically handled by state and local authorities.
Tax credit installments
Angela Rachidi, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, believes families would have been better served by the Earned income Tax Credit if it were paid through periodical installments, instead of once at tax time. “As an income supplement, this is insufficient,” she told the Deseret News.
The tax credit is fully refundable, so low-income families who earn too little to pay taxes can claim it by filing a tax return.
A study in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said an annual lump-sum distribution makes it hard for those who receive it to handle emergencies as they pop up. They found that “periodic payment recipients experienced significantly lower levels of perceived stress.” They had less need to borrow money, less food insecurity and has less trouble paying bills.
Redeploy college students
College students could have received and given valuable help, said Council on Contemporary Families education and research director Stephanie Coontz, a professor at The Evergreen State College.
She said two segments of society who’ve suffered in COVID-19 could benefit if government would “experiment with contemporary takes on the (Works Progress Administration) or (Civilian Conservation Corps), paying young people who have had to stay home from college to tutor K-12 students or read to Zoom pods of children who are stuck at home but have parents who are trying to work from home.”
College students tutoring younger people isn’t a new idea. GoPeer.org has been pairing “vetted” volunteers from top universities with K-12 students during COVID-19, for example.
But many college students have been hit hard financially by pandemic shutdowns and with more time available, Coontz and others believe a win-win situation could be created. Paying college students to tutor would alleviate some of their financial pressure, while helping younger students who are struggling with online, hybrid and even in-school learning.
COVID-19 has removed some parental preference regarding work, creating a “tradeoff between the family they want to have and their ability to stay in the work force,” said Arielle Kuperberg, associate professor of sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Many women — across income groups — left the workforce during COVID-19 not because they wanted to, but because in-person schools closed or had erratic schedules and a parent — often, the woman — needed to supervise online education, said Kuperberg.
“I was recently shocked to find that my own dentist has quit her job — which required a lot of training — to supervise home-schooling her kids during the pandemic,” she said. “This is just exposing and increasing a problem that long existed at younger ages. Before kids enter school, parents are pretty much on their own for child care unless they earn almost nothing. And child care is so expensive that, for many women, it is just not worth it to work because they would be spending all or most of their money on child care.”
As policymakers ponder solutions to some of the painful problems families have been facing, Boissiere said it’s crucial to let data from the pandemic guide decisions on where to concentrate resources. It’s also crucial, she said, to talk to those who have been most affected — including in hard-hit racial and ethnic communities.
“The best way to understand what communities need is to talk to the people within the community and to make sure that we have that perspective at the center of any policy solution that we put forward,” she said.