Urban Wire Three Things for the New Administration to Know about How Young Children Are Weathering the Pandemic
Erica Greenberg
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A father helps his daughter with her jacket while dropping her off for her first day of 1st grade at the Lincoln-Hancock Community School in Quincy, MA on September 17, 2020.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to “invest in all children from birth.” That investment, at least in the short term, should be targeted to address the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on young children and their families.

For the past seven months, the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience has been fielding a survey designed to gather essential information about the needs, behaviors, and well-being of families with children ages 5 and younger during the pandemic. Over that time, experts across the Urban Institute have helped us put the results of the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development (RAPID) - Early Childhood Survey into context for policymakers. Here, we highlight some of the key takeaways for the incoming administration.

1. Young children and their families are uniquely affected by the pandemic, but the effects have been especially severe for Black and Latinx families, families with low incomes, single-parent families, and families of children with disabilities

Others have documented the racial disparities in COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates, but for many the consequences of the pandemic extend beyond health. Families with lower incomes, Black and Latinx families, and single-parent families are all more likely than others to have experienced material hardship during the pandemic—that is, they have struggled to pay for basic needs, like housing, food, or utilities. Critically, among Black and Latinx households, higher income has not been a buffer against these financial challenges; Black and Latinx households face more material hardship than white families with similar levels of prepandemic income because of the racial wealth gap and other expressions of structural racism.

Material hardship can often manifest in stress, which can have long-term effects, especially on young children. Nearly 20 percent of families with low incomes reported that knowing they could pay their housing expenses would reduce household conflict. Single parents, who are among the groups more likely to be experiencing material hardship, reported both they and their children are experiencing higher levels of emotional distress, as did parents of young children with disabilities. As Congress and the new administration look toward alleviating the pandemic’s effects on families, they should give special consideration to both the material and psychological needs of different types of families.

We are some of the lucky ones, only one of us was laid off for a short time. People are suffering, out of work and running out of benefits. They need help.

— 33-year-old parent from Kentucky responding to the RAPID-EC survey during the week of November 3

2. Supporting young children includes supporting their families

The well-being of young children is inextricably linked to the well-being of those who care for them. Our University of Oregon colleagues describe the “chain of material hardship,” in which financial or material hardship leads to emotional distress among parents, which in turn leads to emotional difficulties among children. They find that when parents have strong emotional support, whether from family, neighbors, or religious groups, they are able to break this chain of hardship, protecting children from the worst emotional distress. But accessing that emotional support has become harder.

In many cases, parents need not only emotional support but also help in caring for and educating their children. Early in the pandemic, parents of young children with disabilities reported high levels of concern about their children’s learning, development, and behavior. When schools and child care centers closed, many of these families lost regular access to meaningful intervention services. As we wrote this spring, both parents and service providers are in need of clearer guidance and better tools, even as they continue to innovate to serve children under challenging conditions.  

Child care can also be a source of support for young children and their families, but access to child care has become uncertain for many. RAPID survey data show that during the pandemic, parents have been far less likely to rely on center-based child care and more likely to rely on other caregivers or provide care themselves. The pandemic has been hard on working mothers. Whether it is closures, costs, or health concerns keeping many kids out of their usual child care or school, it is important that these options be available to families when they are ready to return. Policymakers concerned about the well-being of young children should look to ensure there is an adequate supply of child care and that families, especially those with unemployed parents and lower-income parents, can afford the care they want. 

3. Controlling the coronavirus will help, but it’s just the beginning

The well-being of families with young children is tied to their local infection rate, according to RAPID data. That is, as infection rates climb, so do reports of emotional distress. Controlling the coronavirus is a critical step—for everyone—but it is unlikely to erase the hardship and stress we have described. Families will need financial assistance to ensure they can pay for rent, utilities, nutritious meals, health care (including mental health care), and child care. Children who have been out of child care or school will need support building their academic and socioemotional skills. Child care providers and schools will need funding and guidance to accommodate the return of families and address the increase in child trauma. Recovery efforts should be targeted to be most effective.

The pandemic has already upended a generation. Quick and comprehensive intervention can help ensure young children are not playing catch-up for the rest of their lives.

Philip Fisher, Philip H. Knight chair and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, contributed to this post.

Research Areas Children and youth
Tags COVID-19
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy