The blog of the Urban Institute
April 2, 2020

Stabilizing Supports for Children and Families during the Pandemic

April 2, 2020

To thrive, children need stability in their environments, relationships, and basic needs such as food, health care, shelter, and education. They also need to feel safe and secure. In an ideal world, parents are the linchpin in a web of stabilizing supports and provide those needs for their family through work, relationships, or community supports.

But the pandemic has dealt a major blow to parents’ ability to meet their children’s basic needs.  Almost all parents have lost some essential elements of their stabilizing web, including schools and child care programs, which support children’s learning, relationships, and routines. Social distancing practices have also curtailed access to core relationships with family, friends, and civic and faith organizations that are essential for the well-being of both parents and their children.  

Most parents are struggling to reassure their children of their safety and security and to meet their needs for predictable routines. And blanketing all those concerns is the constant stress many parents feel about keeping their family safe and their economic futures secure, both of which create additional challenges for parenting. Instability in children’s lives, particularly if it’s negative, frequent, or multipronged, can undercut healthy development and well-being, with long-term implications. Research from previous recessions and the long-term impact of Hurricane Katrina on children’s development suggests that these events have a ripple effect throughout children’s lives, providing important lessons to consider during the current crisis.

As we focus on flattening the curve of the coronavirus pandemic and dealing with the economic crisis it has created, we must also help parents continue to provide stability for their families, with a particular focus on what they need to minimize the fallout for their children. To visualize the stabilizing web of supports for children’s core needs, Urban Institute researchers have released Stabilizing Children’s Lives, a new conceptual model and related materials that offer detailed looks at the role of different actors, including parents and guardians, in stabilizing support for children’s basic needs. This model illustrates the connectedness of stabilizing supports for children as they grow and develop—supports now even more at risk during the pandemic.

Which families are most at risk?

Even before the pandemic, there were major holes in this stabilizing web for many families who struggle to pay their bills and lack resources to cover emergencies. The pandemic and national economic crisis have widened those holes, with a rapidly growing number of parents losing their jobs. These problems disproportionately affect parents with lower incomes, parents of color, and parents with only a high school education. But these challenges are not confined only to families with low incomes, as was evident with the government shutdown last year.

People who work in restaurants, hotels, retail, manufacturing, or construction are likely to be among the hardest hit, including many parents who live from paycheck to paycheck. These families are now facing the loss of almost all of their stabilizing supports. Without jobs, many parents have lost health insurance (if they were lucky enough to have it from their employer in the first place) and income, but bills have not ceased. Schools and child care providers, which provide settings that not only educate children but also keep them safe and help them get important nutritional supports, have closed. Many parents cannot look for a new job because of the tanking economy and because there are no schools or child care providers to look after their children, and they can’t ask older relatives to help because of the health risk.  

When taken all together, these parents are facing a daunting set of challenges, compounded by significant emotional and financial stress and uncertainty—all while needing to keep their children secure and engaged at home.

Strategies to help families amid the pandemic

So what can be done? As of this writing, Congress and state legislatures across the country continue rushing to pass legislation and funding efforts to address the crisis. Significant public investment to shore up stabilizing supports will be necessary so families can support their children’s healthy development. This support should be targeted to those whose support system was already fragile.  

Policy strategies must be similarly comprehensive, focusing not only on addressing the current crisis but also on supporting recovery and building resilience going forward. Some of the policy and investment steps, and issues of concern, that Urban researchers and others have highlighted include the following:

These steps could help parents stabilize their children’s lives by giving them the strong foundation they need to thrive during these challenging times.

Dozens of families receive food distributed by Montgomery County Public Schools as part of a program to feed children while schools are closed due to the coronavirus March 20, 2020 in Silver Spring, Maryland. Millions of children across the country rely on meals they get at school, which are closed in an attempt to suppress transmission of the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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