As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, many families with young children have faced and continue to experience an overwhelming amount of material and economic hardship and food insecurity. This not only creates distress in the short term but has significant implications for children’s longer-term well-being and development. Although data may show a recovering economy and decreases in unemployment, stories from parents with young children highlight how hardship endures because of instability in work hours, disruptions to child care, and barriers to food access. We interviewed 16 parents who both had a child under age 6 and reported experiencing food insecurity in the September 2020 Coronavirus Tracking Survey, and we learned the following:
- Although some parents had experienced job loss, families more commonly struggled with reduced work hours, and underemployment had become the norm for many families.
- Reduced income and children spending more time at home takes a toll on family food budgets. Parents navigated additional barriers to buying enough food for their families, including store closures, transportation challenges, and rising food prices.
- Families utilized common food-coping strategies, such as reducing dietary variety, relying on shelf-stable foods, and using charitable food resources such as food pantries, a resource some newly food insecure families used for the first time during the pandemic. Some families faced more severe food hardship, resulting in parents reducing their intake so that their children could eat.
- Adaptations to federal nutrition programs made a positive impact on some families experiencing food insecurity, but others continued to experience challenges in accessing program benefits. Difficulty getting to school meal pick-ups, fear of public-charge rules, lack of funds to pay for delivery fees for online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program grocery purchases, and delays in Pandemic-EBT rollout limited the resources available for some families.
- Families’ lives have been altered significantly by the pandemic, leading to more limited environments for children and increased parental stress.
In this brief, we also share the detailed experiences of four parents with young children, including
- Anna, who was able to hang on to her job but went without health insurance throughout 2020;
- Gloria, who was caring for a special needs child and navigating a slew of challenges;
- Miguel, whose reduced work hours meant he was falling behind on rent and car payments for the first time; and
- Elena, whose work as an independent contractor had been reduced and who faced limited options for seeking other work during the pandemic because of a significant health condition.
These stories shed light on how families with young children have coped throughout 2020 with myriad pressures and why additional economic relief under way from the American Rescue Plan as well as sustained commitments to families with young children will be critical to buffering potential adverse outcomes that can persist for years.