Record Unemployment Hurts Workers—and Their Children

By Hannah Matthews

Unemployment claims rose by another 2.4 million workers last week. Having nearly 40 million people out of work – the worst unemployment since the Great Depression – bodes terrible consequences for the country. While the national conversation focuses on workers and jobs lost, the nation needs to pay greater attention to the economic peril facing a generation of young children. Behind the staggering number of jobless claims are millions of children experiencing severe economic insecurity, cared for by stressed parents who are questioning how they’ll get by.

The high poverty associated with unemployment is deeply harmful to children, particularly young children. And record unemployment is only one piece of mounting evidence of the trouble children face. New data on hunger show that nearly one in five young children are not getting enough to eat. One in three parents of children under age three in New York City reports skipping or reducing meals themselves, and one in 10 parents report being forced to skip or reduce their children’s meals. And nearly three-quarters of parents of young children in California are worried about their family’s mental health.

As with all aspects of this pandemic, the public heath and economic crisis is being disproportionately felt by Black and Latinx families due to deeply rooted racist public policies. As a result of these systemic barriers, people in Black and Latinx communities even before the pandemic were more likely to be in low-wage jobs without paid leave benefits. Today, the same workers are experiencing greater job loss and economic instability.

Taken together, what is emerging is a perfect storm of devastation targeting children, especially children of color. The pandemic has shuttered schools and child care, upending children’s daily routines and cutting off access to a key source of food and support services. Child development research warns us that the harm to children from the level of economic and food insecurity that families are facing risks this generation’s health, wellbeing, and success into adulthood.

But children’s developmental needs go well beyond the basics. Children, and especially young children, rely on adults for the caregiving and nurturing they need for their healthy development. When parents, grandparents, and other caregivers are stressed, their children’s wellbeing suffers profoundly—especially so for babies and toddlers. Timely research, conducted from late February to late March as layoffs increased, shows a sharp increase in depression and anxiety symptoms among parents who held hourly, low-wage jobs—as well as in their children.

Children and families need help now and will need sustained support well into the future. We must go further than the Congressional response to-date to ensure all families have paid leave, affordable health insurance coverage, and far larger income and nutrition supports. The HEROES Act recently passed by the House would address these needs in a substantial way and the Senate must step up and follow suit.

Once lawmakers address immediate needs, we also need a long-term strategy to reverse the harm to children. This will require substantial economic supports and quality employment for parents who lost jobs. It will also require robust investments in supports that children need, including expanded health and mental health services, early education, and early intervention. We can start by sustaining the child care industry, which is facing widespread permanent closures if stimulus funds don’t keep the industry afloat. When parents return to work, we will need stable, high-quality child care to nurture children who have experienced instability and hardship. We can make investments in programs that support children most affected by the crisis, such as a significant expansion in Head Start and Early Head Start, which is designed to addresses child health, wellbeing, educational development, and the comprehensive needs of families.

But we can’t just fund targeted programs for a set of families. The unacceptably high child poverty rate before the pandemic is evidence that we need a new approach. It has never been clearer that we need a comprehensive working families’ agenda that doubles down on the investments that children need, from affordable housing to quality child care to paid family and medical leave. Because young children of color are most adversely impacted by today’s crisis, our solutions must acknowledge the systemic impacts of failed policies on Black and Latinx children and center racial equity. And we must implement long-lasting solutions, because this situation can’t be reversed with short-term fixes.

The pandemic has laid bare systemic problems that now threaten to destabilize families in countless ways. The enduring consequences are a problem we all must hold—as parents, as a community, and as a country. If we’re truly all in this together, we simply must support families and children who have fewer resources to weather this storm.