An Overload of stressors resulting from COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed increased stress on America’s 73 million children, their families, and the child welfare system. An October 2020 data analysis by the Center on Poverty & Social Policy (CPSP) at Columbia University monitored monthly poverty estimates, which showed that an additional eight million Americans—including 2.5 million children—have fallen into poverty since May 2020. Families that were already in a precarious position before the pandemic began are facing stressors with regard to job loss and economic security, housing, food insecurity, school and childcare closures, and decreased access to services and support systems. An overload of stressors without sufficient support may have contributed to today’s all too common child anxiety, depression, and maltreatment and challenged the formal child welfare system.
Problems U.S. Children Face
The problems of U.S. children and youth fall into three general categories: poverty, victimization by abuse and neglect, and those resulting from their own risky behaviors.
Children are the poorest members of our society. At the end of 2021, an estimated 25% of minority children and 17% of white children in the U.S. lived in poverty, and 1 in 2 was near to being poor. In 2019, a family of four was considered poor if their annual income fell below $26,172, which amounts to $2,181 a month, $503 a week. Although, thanks to programs like social security expansion and Medicare, only 9% of seniors are poor today, we have not adequately addressed child poverty.1
The effects of poverty on children’s health and well-being include increased infant mortality, higher rates of low birth weight and subsequent health and developmental problems, increased frequency and severity of chronic diseases such as asthma, greater food insecurity with poorer nutrition and growth, poorer access to quality health care, increased unintentional injury and mortality, poorer oral health, lower immunization rates, and increased rates of obesity and its complications.2 More than 1 in 7 children—10.7 million—were food insecure, meaning they lived in households where not everyone had enough to eat. Black and Hispanic children were twice as likely to live in food-insecure households as white children.
Children growing up in poverty have poorer educational outcomes with poorer academic achievement and lower rates of high school graduation; they have less positive social and emotional development, which, in turn, often leads to life "trajectory altering events" such as early unprotected sex with increased teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and increased criminal behavior as adolescents and adults; and they are more likely to be poor adults with low productivity and low earnings.
Victimization, abuse, and neglect
Too many children, especially those raised in poor families, single-parent households, and those with teenage parents, are subjected to neglect and abuse. Physical abuse may be apparent, but not all signs of child abuse are as obvious. Ignoring a child’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, exposing them to inappropriate sexual situations, or making them feel worthless or stupid are also forms of child abuse and neglect—and they can leave deep, lasting scars.
Social support from relatives or the child welfare system, including foster care placement, is often inadequate to compensate for parental deficiencies. Additional stressors such as bullying, cyberbullying, and gang activities, together with family neglect and abuse, can result in anxiety and depression.
The pandemic that has orphaned an estimated 200,000 children has revealed the fact that too many families were in a precarious position before the pandemic began. Clearly, greater investment in strong families and communities is needed to keep children safe and allow them to fulfill their educational, occupational, and social potential.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), health-risk behaviors established during youth are often continued into adulthood. Furthermore, the CDC concluded that these behaviors were interrelated and preventable by educational initiatives.
The CDCs Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) monitors categories of health-related behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth and adults, including:3
Prevention of risky behaviors should include health education and health services tailored to address health outcomes relating to sexual behaviors, high-risk substance use, violence, and mental health. Establishing safe and supportive school environments and engaging parents can impact all of these health outcomes.
Connectedness to family, peers and important adults in schools and community organizations is also key to protecting adolescent health. Families can provide an essential source of connectedness and support by staying engaged with what is going on in their adolescents' daily lives and talking to them about their family values. Students are more likely to thrive if they know they matter and that they have adults, teachers, and friends who care about their safety and success.
1 The State of America’s Children 2021. Children’s Defense Fund
2 Academic Pediatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics https://www.academicpeds.org/public_policy/pdf/APA_Task_Force_Strategic_Road_Mapver3.pdf
3 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2019.
4 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data & Trends Report 2009-2019.