Many families with young children are experiencing financial hardships as a result of the pandemic. These hardships are negatively affecting caregiver well-being, which in turn is having adverse effects on the emotional health of young children.
Income loss, financial difficulties, and material hardship have increased since the start of the pandemic, with many families struggling to obtain the most basic needs like housing, utilities, and food. This is especially true among low income households and households of color.
With federal supplemental unemployment benefits and bans on evictions due to expire at the end of the month, those who have been struggling already will experience significant escalations in hardship and emotional difficulties; moreover, millions more young children in families who have been barely hanging on are likely to experience this same chain of events.
If policy makers do not act immediately, the country may find itself in an escalating crisis of widespread child hunger and homelessness. This will have lasting on this generation’s physical and mental health; social and emotional development and relationships; academic achievement; economic self-sufficiency, and ultimately on our economy and society.
But it’s not too late.
If policy makers take immediate action, they can prevent this crisis and promote resilience and positive outcomes in the current generation of children.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused financial strain and material hardship for many families, as they face job and income loss, struggle to find affordable quality child care and health care, and lack access to social and emotional support. In many households, these financial and material hardships are leaving caregivers uncertain about how they will meet their family’s basic needs such as paying rent, buying food, and paying for utilities.
Last week, we reported that during the pandemic family income loss, financial difficulties, and the difficulty providing for children’s basic needs are widespread — roughly 20% of those in our nationally representative sample reported having a hard or very hard time paying for the very basics like food, housing, medical care, and heating.
Using 2010 census data, this means that approximately two million households with children age five and under in this country are experiencing such hardships.
We also reported that some families are clearly being hit harder than others, including lower income households, Black households, Latinx households—a finding that has been reported in other surveys. Strikingly, we found that middle and upper income Black and Latinx households in particular are experiencing disproportionately high rates of material hardships, compared with non-Black/Latinx middle and upper income households.
This week, we look at how these financial and material hardships are affecting the emotional well‑being of caregivers and their children. We find that these hardships are playing out in a highly problematic way — first affecting caregiver well-being, which in turn is having a direct negative impact on their children.
This situation is of the utmost concern for two reasons.
Chronic stress has lasting, long-term effects.
Decades of research show that being exposed to chronic stress in infancy and early childhood can negatively affect brain and biological development as well as socioemotional development.
It increases risk for academic and social difficulties; addiction; physical illness; lack of economic self-sufficiency; and even early mortality. Parents and other caregivers play a key role in buffering children from the effects of chronic stress.
But when caregivers are stretched and overloaded by continuous threats to their own well-being, their ability to play this buffering role is compromised. The chain reaction we are observing from financial and material hardship to parent distress to child emotional difficulties is evidence that for many young children, the pandemic is causing what has been referred to as toxic stress, which involves chronic activation of the stress response system in ways that are known to affect brain, biological, and socioemotional development.
A number of policy measures that were implemented at the start of the pandemic are about to expire.
In our survey data, we found that not all families were able to access these supports; but nevertheless, unless we extend these policies, the situation for families and young children is about to get much worse.
- For example, the $600/week supplement to unemployment insurance implemented in March in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is set to expire on July 31, 2020. On average, unemployment payments prior to the pandemic were only $380 per week, which is only a fraction of most Americans’ wages.
- Similarly, the ban on evictions in federally-backed properties that was included in the CARES Act expires July 25, and the ban on mortgage foreclosures expires at the end of August. The one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 were provided to families in late April and have long been spent on necessities like food, rent, and utilities.
In the absence of these measures, many more households with young children will soon be thrown into crisis. Vast numbers of families with young children might end up having power and water turned off, running out of funds to purchase food, diapers, and other necessities, and struggling to pay for childcare or health care.
Many families with young children might also end up homeless, at a time when our crisis relief infrastructure is already stressed to capacity in many locations.
The implication of these data are simple and straightforward: policy makers must take action to prevent families with young children from financial and material hardship.
If they don’t, the negative strain of these hardships on caregiver well-being may lead to enduring consequences for children’s health and well-being for decades to come.
This doesn’t have to happen
Research shows that with support to maintain stability and predictability and to ensure that basic needs are met, there is considerable plasticity to brain, biology, and behavior early in life. This helps to explain the remarkable resilience children can exhibit even in the face of significant adversity.
But the window won’t remain open indefinitely. As Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman observed, the longer in children’s lives we wait to intervene the less these efforts will achieve. If we act now, we can mitigate the effects of financial and material hardship that some children have experienced and others will soon encounter.
This week we looked at caregiver responses from our RAPID-EC survey of a nationally representative sample of American households with children aged 5 and under. We asked caregivers about their family finances, their own emotional difficulties, and their children’s emotional difficulties. We then looked at how financial hardship related to both caregiver and child distress.
Caregivers experiencing more financial and material hardship also have more emotional distress.
Our data reveal that for all three measures of financial and material hardship, caregivers who are having worse financial problems, more difficulty paying for basics, and more overall material hardship are also experiencing worse emotional well-being (higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness).
These findings indicate that feeling chronic financial strain and being uncertain about one’s ability meet basic needs leads subsequently to increases in caregivers’ emotional distress. Given how important providing basic family needs is for caregivers, this finding is not surprising.
When caregivers experience more financial and material hardship, they also report more emotional difficulties in their children.
Caregivers who report more of financial burdens also say that their children are having emotional distress.
These results show that when caregivers feel stress and uncertainty about paying their bills and providing the basics for their families, negative emotional effects cascade downstream to their children.
Lower caregiver well-being related to financial and material hardship drives increases in children’s emotional distress.
In order to understand more about how financial hardship, caregiver emotional distress and child experiences relate to each other, we performed additional analyses to see whether the observed drop in caregiver well-being in families with more financial difficulties might be driving the emotional difficulties in their children.
Our data show a chain reaction that unfolds over time. Caregiver reports of financial and material hardship are directly linked the following week to increases in caregiver emotional distress. Caregiver emotional distress is then linked to increases in child emotional distress in the subsequent week.
In short, the financial and material hardships households are experiencing are negatively impacting children because they are disrupting the well-being of caregivers.
Implications of this chain reaction
Scientific evidence has clearly established how crucial the early years of children’s lives are for healthy brain growth, social/emotional well-being, and life-long health. Given this, it is extremely important that we protect children from direct threats to their early development — especially in the context of the pandemic. This week’s data show that caregiver stress related to financial and material hardship is one of these threats and that it will negatively affect children unless policy makers take immediate action.
Given last week’s post, some children may also be particularly disadvantaged by their family’s ongoing financial and material hardships. Last week we reported that lower income households, Black households, and Latinx households experience income loss, financial difficulties, and material hardship at disproportionately high rates.
Unfortunately, this may mean that the caregivers and children within these households also experience a particularly heavy load of stress and emotional burden, and, in turn, that children’s wellbeing is even more negatively affected in these households.
We did not directly examine how the relationship between financial strain and caregiver/child well-being varies across different subgroups (i.e., lower income households and households of color) in this week’s data.
However, our findings suggest that across all households with more financial and material hardship, there is greater emotional suffering by caregivers and, in turn, their children.
Thus, given the existing disparities in income loss, financial difficulties, and material hardship experienced by different households, there is cause to worry that structural inequities based on race or income may also exacerbate existing disparities in caregiver and child well-being that will persist beyond the current crisis.
Below we list recommendations to support the millions of households already experiencing the negative chain reaction from financial hardship to caregiver suffering to child emotional distress, and to prevent millions more households from being exposed to the same circumstances. There is still time to leverage the resilience that young children can exhibit in the face of adversity; however, as we approach deadlines for the expiration of benefits and young children languish under conditions of chronic stress, time is running out.
Recommendations for policymakers
- Extend the financial benefits that were part of the original CARES Act that are due to expire soon, including pandemic supplemental unemployment and economic stimulus payments to all families in need.
- Extend the CARES Act moratorium on evictions and mortgage foreclosures that are due to expire soon, and implement moratoria on utilities being turned off due to lack of payment.
- Provide pandemic emergency SNAP benefits to all households with insufficient funds to purchase food.
- Provide assistance and benefits to cover the costs of childcare and medical care not covered by insurance.
- Provide funding for adult and child mental health, social, and emotional supports to help combat the high levels of distress in households that have been experiencing financial and hardship
- Enact public health measures that have been shown to control and contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“Young families face significant financial pressure from COVID-19,” ConsumerAffairs.
“Where’s the rallying cry? America’s children are unequally prepared to absorb the impacts of COVID-19,” Brookings Institution.
“Parents Are Struggling to Provide for Their Families during the Pandemic,” Urban Institute.
“COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated hardships for low-income, minority families,” American Academy of Pediatrics—News.
“Early Relational Health (ERH): An Introduction,” Center for the Study of Social Policy.
About the project
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last winter, there were over 24 million children age five and under living in the United States. This period of early childhood is a critical window that sets the stage for health and well-being across the lifespan. As such, it is essential during the current health and economic crisis to listen to the voices of households with young children.
The weekly survey of households with children age five and under launched on April 6, 2020. Since then, we have been gathering weekly data about child and adult emotional well-being, financial and work circumstances, availability of healthcare, and access to child care/early childhood education.
This week’s analyses are based on responses collected from 5173 caregivers between the dates of April 06, 2020 and June 25, 2020. These caregivers represent a range of voices: 12.47% are African American, 18.77% are LatinX, and 12.51% live at or below 1.5 times the federal poverty line. Proportions/percentages are calculated based on the item-level response rates, not out of the total sample size. The data for these analyses are not weighted.
We will continue to report on these issues as we learn more from each new weekly survey. We will also be producing policy briefs that make concrete recommendations about how to address the challenges we are seeing emerge from the family surveys.
Our goal is to use what we are hearing from families to improve the well-being of all households with young children, during the pandemic and beyond.
Center for Translational Neuroscience (2020, July 30). A Hardship Chain Reaction: Financial Difficulties Are Stressing Families’ and Young Children’s Wellbeing during the Pandemic, and It Could Get a Lot Worse. Medium. https://medium.com/rapid-ec-project/a-hardship-chain-reaction-3c3f3577b30