Before Covid-19, the poverty rate in America had been on a slow decline, but the pandemic has stalled—if not reversed—that progress. Among the hardest hit are children from low-income families, where school closures and the high cost of childcare forced previously employed parents to give up their jobs and income to care for their kids. This vicious cycle of poverty among parents and children is becoming an important part of the policy debate in the US and President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 138 nations have closed schools nationally, with many others implementing regional or local closures. Around the world, 80 percent of children’s schooling is impacted by school closures. While closing schools may prevent virus transmission, there is no denying that extended school closures can have a detrimental impact on young children living in poverty and may be intensifying existing disparities.
In the U.S. almost one in every five children lives in poverty, a percentage that is significantly higher than that of adults. African American, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native children are disproportionately affected by poverty. Childhood poverty is linked to a higher incidence of accidents, chronic disease, and mental health issues, with effects that last not just throughout childhood but also throughout one’s life and well into adulthood.
To begin with, school closures will exacerbate food insecurity. For many low-income families, school is not only a place to learn but also a place to eat. Research shows school lunch is linked to improved academic performance, while food insecurity (including irregular or unhealthy diets) is linked to lower educational achievement and significant risks to children’s physical and mental health. In the U.S. estimates indicate that 14 percent of households with children suffered from food insecurity in 2018; that number is likely even greater today.
Despite the fact that learning is expected to continue, the closures are likely to deepen the learning gap between children from lower-income and higher-income families. Children from low-income families face challenges when it comes to homeschooling as they may lack access to a computer, or even stable housing. In the U.S. approximately 2.5 percent of students do not live in a stable residence. One in ten students in New York City was homeless or had serious housing instability during the previous school year. While children from higher-income families may be able to continue their education without interruption, children from lower-income families are more likely to struggle with homework and online courses due to their insecure housing circumstances.
We know that chronic absenteeism, such as missing 10% or more of a school year, has an effect on academic results such as reading levels, grade retention, graduation rates, and high school dropout rates. Children from low-income households are already disproportionately impacted by chronic absenteeism. Missing months of school due to unstable housing or technology will have a far more serious impact.
As a result of Covid-19, families are losing their sources of revenue, and the world economy is in a slump, more households are going into monetary poverty. Previous recessions have worsened child poverty levels, with long-term repercussions for children’s health, well-being, and educational outcomes.
According to forecasts as of November 2020, the worldwide socio-economic crisis triggered by the pandemic will push 142 million more children into monetary poor households in developed countries by the end of the year. In the absence of any mitigation policies, the worldwide number of children living in poor families will reach just over 725 million.
Because children experience poverty differently than adults, it’s crucial to evaluate their material needs and potential deprivations, as well as to measure their poverty in more than just financial terms. The United Kingdom launched an ambitious strategy to tackle child poverty twenty-two years ago. More than a fifth of British children were poor at the time. Government payments to families with children were at the center of the initiative. In the eight years following the initiative, the child poverty rate had decreased by half.
Today, the pandemic should be thought of as a systemic shock to the determinants of child health, affecting family functioning and income, as well as access to healthcare and education. If child health is not prioritized in policy debates, it will suffer terribly.
The child tax benefit, which has been overshadowed by other aspects of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package has the makings of a policy revolution. Despite the fact that it is framed in technocratic terms as an extension of an existing tax credit, it is actually a guaranteed income for families with children, similar to the children’s allowances that are common in other advanced economies. For 2021, the law will also increase the child and dependent care tax credit, as well as the earned-income tax credit for jobs without children for this year. It will exclude student loan forgiveness from income taxes until 2025. The bill also includes around $130 billion for schools and $350 billion for states, local governments, territories, and tribal governments. It provides funds for colleges and universities, public transportation, housing assistance, child care, and food assistance.
According to predictions from Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, the benefit would reduce child poverty to around 6 percent this year from around 14 percent last year. Black and Hispanic children will experience the greatest declines. Figures released by the Biden Administration that the monthly transfers — up to $300 for small children and $250 for those over the age of five — will reduce child poverty by 45 percent, and by more than 50 percent among Black families. That said, the jury is still out on how much impact it might actually have. According to a group of US experts who reviewed the study for the National Academy of Sciences, a universal child benefit would have a “negligible” effect on employment.
Still, a newfound focus on this growing problem is a welcome development. Policymakers, school administrators, and other local officials and lawmakers must be prepared for the significant problems that will arise once the pandemic has passed. To begin to close the learning gap, an appropriate response must include targeted education and material support for children from low-income households. Biden’s stimulus package is a big step in the right direction, but it should, but should be extended to support low-income families beyond the pandemic and well into its recovery period.