Since April, the researchers at University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience have been conducting a weekly national survey of households with children age 5 and under and the findings are clear: families with young children are stressed, and they’re increasingly facing hunger and unemployment. These challenges, the authors write, are, “negatively affecting caregiver well-being, which in turn is having adverse effects on the emotional health of young children.”
The Rapid EC survey revealed that 20% of families in the US have a hard or very hard time paying for basics like food, housing, medical care, and heating. This hardship is concentrated in lower income households, though Black and Latino families of all incomes are reporting disproportionately high rates of material hardship.
A community’s rate of COVID-19 infection spread is also associated with higher rates of caregiver distress, the most recent iteration of the survey found. Published on July 29, the results showed that even when the data is controlled for financial difficulty, the pandemic’s local severity is affecting the emotional wellbeing of caregivers, which in turn affects children’s development. The results show that caregivers are concerned, kids are at risk, and the pandemic is hurting both people who get sick and those who don’t.
The survey includes questions about emotional wellbeing, access to child care/education, and health care availability. Their findings, which are directed towards policymakers and advocates, show that financial and material hardship are colliding with the pandemic, potentially leading to toxic stress that negatively impacts caregiver and child wellbeing.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center reported similar findings that parents and children are exhibiting worsening behavioral and mental health as the pandemic continues, as well as losing employer-sponsored insurance as the unemployment crisis continues. Medicaid and CHIP are likely replacing coverage for many of these children, and enrollment is increasing in some states.
In many states, Medicaid and CHIP policy has recognized the deep link between caregiver wellbeing and young children’s health by adopting policies that treat children and caregivers together. Often called infant and early childhood mental health, or healthy social and emotional development, these two-generation policies take the form of maternal depression screenings during well child visits, parent-child interaction therapy and other supports that help parents develop the skills to mitigate the effects of chronic stress for their children and themselves.
As the Rapid EC survey results show, families of young children need support during the COVID-19 pandemic more than ever, and Medicaid policies that support caregiver health have a significant role to play.
To mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s physical, social, and emotional development, the research team at the University of Oregon recommends that policymakers include these and other measures in future policy changes:
- Increased support for Medicaid or Medicaid expansion
- Expanded funding for adult and child mental health care, with emphasis on caregiver mental health support
- Moratorium on evictions and mortgages during the pandemic
- Pandemic SNAP benefits and financial assistance for childcare
- Implement public health measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19
As leaders work to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it is clear that not only will regular testing and disease mitigation measures decrease infection and mortality, such measures will also improve caregiver wellbeing and child development.
Ema Bargeron studies government and public health at Georgetown University. She is an early childhood policy intern at CCF.