According to a new report from Save the Children looking at data from the last four months of 2020, only two states – Mississippi and Louisiana – scored worse than Texas for ensuring children are adequately fed, equipped with the tools to learn remotely, and growing up in a financially stable home.
The advocacy group’s Childhood in the Time of COVID report points to a combination of long-term trends in inequality that left many children facing hardships even before the pandemic, and a government response to the pandemic that was insufficient to keep American families whole.
“It’s really a story of haves and have nots. We see in the data that rural communities in the United States, communities of poverty, and most definitely communities where children of color live fare the worst,” said Shane Garver, senior director for rural education at Save the Children.
Save the Children tracked a dramatic increase in poverty across the U.S. last year that was felt most acutely in families with children.
While the major early financial interventions made by the federal government effectively reduced poverty at the beginning of the pandemic, prolonged inaction in the second half of 2020 sent poverty rates soaring, Garver said.
The report found:
- 17 million children in the U.S. are going hungry – 6 million more than before the pandemic.
- 9 million more families are having difficulty making ends meet than before the pandemic.
- 1 in 4 U.S. households with children were behind on rent payments, twice the rate of households without children.
- Black and Latino families were twice as likely as white families to lack adequate food or struggle to pay housing costs, and significantly more likely to report losing income during the pandemic.
- At least 1 in 4 U.S. children have inadequate tools for distance learning.
In Texas, children and families fare even worse than other states. Half of all Texas families with children reported having difficulty making ends meet in December.
The communities most impacted by higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths were also the most impacted by poverty. That layering of stress and trauma in childhood is likely to have long-term impact.
“We know that families are under stress. Families have lost income. Families are going hungry,” Garver said. “Thinking about what this is doing to a child’s development now, I think we’re going to face a social and emotional crisis in this country coming out of the pandemic that’s going to be with us for a while.”
Research shows that compounding childhood traumas and stress can produce psychological scarring that lasts a lifetime, increasing the limbic system’s fight or flight response. Those adverse childhood experiences include hunger, dislocation from evictions or utilities shut-offs, and the stress that comes from a family’s financially precarious situation.
While the fallout from Winter Storm Uri is still being calculated, Garver said children whose families were more severely impacted are likely to fall behind.
“We have kids in this country who are staying on par or getting further ahead,” Garver said. “But kids in rural communities, communities in poverty and communities of color – they’re falling further and further behind. And so coming out of this pandemic, the equity gap is going to be wider than ever.”
The report also points to major concerns about disparities in access to the tools needed for remote learning, further setting back kids in some communities even as others are able to navigate the challenges of schooling during the pandemic.
Access to broadband was already severely limited in many of the nation’s rural communities, and remote “attendance” rates appear to be more significantly reduced among rural school children, Garver said. Educational achievement gaps over the past year among children of color appear to be more severe compared to white children.
These disparities, Garver points out, are the result of “a confluence of policies over a number of years that have really stacked the decks against kids and families in these communities.”
The report comes as Congress is debating a Biden administration coronavirus relief package experts say could cut child poverty in half, at least in the short term.
On Saturday, the House passed the $1.9 trillion package, which includes a $1,400 one-time direct payment to most Americans, expanded unemployment checks, and plan to send thousands of dollars a year to families with kids under 18.
All of Texas' Democrats in the House voted to approve the plan. All Republicans voted against it.
The U.S. Senate is considering the legislation this week.
Garver said he’s optimistic that the legislation, if passed, will help stabilize many struggling families. But he cautions that the U.S. needs to think about long-term, equitable solutions that ensure the nation’s children grow up safe and healthy.
The U.S. should look to other wealthy, highly developed nations that invest in childcare and other financial supports for families so that all children can thrive, he said.
According to a recent study from the medical journal The Lancet, the U.S. came in 39th in the world when it comes to the well-being of children, despite the nation's incredible wealth.
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