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Sounding the Alarm: New Data Reveals Impact of COVID-19 Hardships

Posted:  -  By: Morgan Toliver

Mom putting mask on girl

Guest Blog Post Contributed by John R. Morgan, Ph.D., former Voices Executive Director and current Chewning Research Fellow at the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation

Widening racial-ethnic disparities likely to harm children of color

Data is accumulating showing that economic and familial hardships associated with the pandemic are experienced more acutely by Black and Hispanic families. These hardships are of the same nature as those associated more generally with child poverty; and it is clear that racial-ethnic child poverty disparities in Virginia are already substantial and persistent. The latest data available on the KIDS COUNT Data Center indicate poverty rates of 28.0 for Black children, 19.8 for Hispanic children and 8.9 percent respectively for white children.

Children of color, already more likely to experience child poverty and its associated hardship burdens, are now faced with an extra and similarly disproportionate burden delivered by the pandemic. The most likely outcome of this doubled-up hardship burden is a worsening of pre-pandemic racial-ethnic inequities. It is also likely that these inequities will be most prominent in education and health. Looming on the horizon then is the highly likely and entirely unwelcome prospect of the worsening of already intolerable inequities which greatly disadvantage children of color, including:

  • education achievement gaps (PALS-K scores, SOL scores, SAT scores; and rates of retention, suspension/expulsion, drop-out, graduation, college acceptance)
  • inequities in health status (prevalence of asthma, obesity, low birthweight; inadequate prenatal care; food insecurity)

Data on COVID health outcomes are of primary immediate concern. Infection rates, hospitalization rates and mortality are all substantially higher for Black and Hispanic-Latino than White populations nationally and in Virginia.

Disparities in COVID-caused household hardships

More recently, data from the Census Bureau’s COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey reveal that the burden of COVID-related family hardships falls most heavily on Black and Hispanic households. This disproportionate impact threatens to put at risk the long-term well-being of their children. Much of the available data is national yet it is plausible that national findings will be mirrored in Virginia to a great extent. Some prominent national indicators include:

  • 51 percent of households with children reported an adult in the household had lost employment income. (Pulse Survey August 2020)
  • 58 percent of Hispanic and 53 percent of Black households saw a loss of employment income since March, versus 39 percent of white households. (Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies)
  • 59 percent of Black households, 55 percent of Latino households, and 33 percent of white households reported it was “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult” to pay for usual household expenses. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)
  • 18 percent of Black households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 7 percent of white households reported that their household did not get enough to eat. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

The minimal state-level data available so far align with these national findings. In a recent report, the Commonwealth Institute estimated that 24 percent of children in Virginia live in a household that is not getting enough to eat or is behind on housing payments. Their analysis underscored data indicating that people of color were feeling economic hardships more acutely. For example, one of every eight Virginia workers who identify as Black, Latinx, or Asian/Pacific Islander were unemployed this summer or temporarily laid off without pay, compared to one of every 19 non-Hispanic white workers.

It is evident, therefore, that compared to their white counterparts, Black, and Hispanic children in Virginia are more likely to be exposed to potentially harmful pandemic-related hardships. This threatens to substantially widen existing troublesome disparities and present ever-greater risk to the well-being of Virginia’s children of color.

What makes these findings so alarming?

There is strong scientific consensus, cited in sources above, that the economic hardships and familial stressors associated with child poverty can compromise child development and lead to troublesome outcomes. Research also identifies the parameters that influence the likelihood of such harmful effects. Risk of harm is both additive and cumulative – as the number and/or duration of hardship exposures increase, so does the likelihood of harm.

Applying those parameters to the circumstances faced by Virginia’s children of color, alarms are sounding on both counts. As data reviewed above indicates, Black and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to be exposed to a greater number of hardships during the pandemic (as they were before the pandemic); and pandemic-induced hardships are more acute and severe for Black and Hispanic families, meaning a longer duration before they can fully recover to pre-pandemic levels. The net effect: the pandemic will widen critical Black-white and Hispanic-white disparities, especially in the health and education domains, and likely for an extended period. This will be a step backward, resulting in diminished opportunity and greater disadvantage for children of color.

Policy implications: Will history be repeated?

There are challenging and urgent policy implications of this potential worsening of racial-ethnic child disparities. It is imperative that policymakers address this impending harm by pursuing fiscal and policy initiatives which recognize this disproportionate risk and target responses accordingly.

The guiding principle should be to first restore and then enhance all the pre-pandemic initiatives that were in place to reduce key racial-ethnic disparities in health and education. Every policy and budget decision in our recovery effort will therefore need to be viewed through an equity lens: does this decision recognize the unacceptably disproportionate hardship burden borne by Virginia’s Black and Hispanic children and respond in a manner that does not perpetuate or worsen their previous disadvantage?

Voices is a member of the Fund our Schools Coalition calling to restore education funding. Fund Our Schools partner, The Commonwealth Institute, has wisely urged state decisionmakers while crafting pandemic relief plans not to repeat the upside-down school funding decisions made in response to the Great Recession. In that instance, though recession-era budget cuts had disproportionately impacted the poorest school divisions and students, lawmakers restored proportionately less – not more – funding to these divisions as state finances recovered. Lawmakers should heed the advice and avoid uniform across-the-board recovery initiatives that fail to respond to the reality of COVID-19’s disproportionate harm. Failure to do so will needlessly and callously worsen existing racial-ethnic inequities and push Black and Hispanic children even farther behind their white counterparts. On economic, social and moral grounds this would be an intolerable outcome.

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