Monica Pomares doesn’t know how she made it through the last year. After falling ill with what she suspects was Covid-19 in spring of 2020—Pomares couldn’t access testing—she ended up with what her doctors now say are likely long-haul symptoms: severe fatigue, migraines and mental fog. With her partner working two jobs, Pomares spent many days in bed, watching their 3-year-old daughter from cameras she placed around the house. “I felt really bad because I’m like, what kind of life am I giving her?” the 39-year-old said on a recent afternoon. Pomares’ budding business as a voice teacher in her Oregon town shut down when the pandemic started. And her boyfriend depleted his 401k to pay the family’s bills, on top of working his two jobs. “We’re kind of swinging from vine to vine,” Pomares said on a recent afternoon.
Pomares, who also has a 14-year-old and is pregnant with her third child, hopes to go back to work after having her baby. But she doesn’t know how she’ll pay for child care when that happens. She is anxiously awaiting the family’s first payment from the expanded Child Tax Credit, which will begin in the form of monthly payments in July. “That’s going to help us immensely,” she said.
Like Pomares, millions of families still haven’t fully recovered from the worst of the pandemic. Although rates of material hardship among families with young children have been declining in recent months, 1 in 4 families recently surveyed by RAPID-EC, a biweekly survey of families with young children, are still having difficulty affording their basic needs, including paying for food, rent and bills. That’s a slightly higher rate than when the pandemic began last spring. Meanwhile, food hardship rates for children are still significantly higher than pre-pandemic. In late March 2021, 8.8 million children lived in a home where they weren’t eating enough because their families couldn’t afford food, compared to 1.1 million children in December 2019.
These rates of food and material hardship have been consistently higher for Black and Latinx households than white households; material hardship rates have also been higher for single-parent households, families with children with disabilities and low-income families.
“There are still families struggling with income, still having bills piling up,” said Jason Gindele, executive director of Mainspring Schools, a child care center in Austin, Texas, which along with providing care, has helped families pay rent and buy food during the pandemic. “These are families who were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic and now suddenly have six, eight, ten months of rent or utilities [to pay].”
Experts say the pandemic has illuminated how fraught the nation’s support system is for families —and what needs to be in place to help families recover. “Support was already fragmented and weak, and so the pandemic has exacerbated that,” said Cathy McHorse, vice president of Success by 6 at the United Way for Greater Austin.
Coming out of the pandemic, parents and experts have identified a host of policies that could help. The expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which will come in the form of advanced monthly payments to families beginning in July, could make a big dent in child poverty and alleviate some of the chronic stress faced by families. Making that tax credit permanent is one of the main recommendations from experts and child-focused organizations. Proposals by President Joe Biden to provide child care assistance to families, create a national paid family leave program and provide universal preschool to 3 and 4-year-olds could also play a huge role in lifting families up. “We have a real opportunity right now, when you think about policies that can better support families with young children” said Rahil Briggs, national director of HealthySteps, a pediatric primary care program. That includes many of the initiatives proposed in the American Families Plan (AFP), like medical leave for families, more child care support and mental health access, she added.
Stabilizing the nation’s fragile child care system is also critical to support families, said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer at the nonprofit ZERO TO THREE. “All those children that are struggling now, we really owe it to them,” she said. “We owe it to the future of this country to make sure we have all the supports in place now and in the future so we can address those challenges and make sure we don’t have lifelong consequences”
In the absence of more reliable, immediate and consistent federal and state support, many families have turned to community organizations, child care centers and schools for help—some of which have been struggling themselves. In Los Angeles, the nonprofit Para Los Niños, which runs a network of child care centers and charter schools among other services, has focused on helping families meet their basic needs through food distribution days and access to technology. Para Los Niños also focuses on mental health by providing access to therapists for more than 100 families each week, sometimes in the form of parent-child therapy that occurs simultaneously. Many experts say this is critical as they are anticipating that the stress and trauma from the pandemic could manifest as mental health challenges for children and their caregivers. Said Sherry Berg, director of clinical development at Para Los Niños: “This is a trauma for our entire society right now.”
This story about economic hardship was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.