How to help families recover from the pandemic disaster
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For many American families, the COVID-19 pandemic experience was not dissimilar to being hit by a category 5 hurricane. Core public services, such as schools and public transportation remain disrupted. Large-scale unemployment has persisted for months, community social activities are suspended, and far too many are left grieving over lost loved ones. These disaster-like conditions put unique financial and psychological stressors on families with children, in particular.

Congress can help alleviate these dire circumstances by making the entirety of the Child Tax Credit available to families regardless of income. Case studies of effective disaster relief suggest that direct income support would help alleviate both the short-run financial disruption from the pandemic, and the risk of longer-term psychological scarring.

Nonetheless, Congress has provided families relatively little in terms of dedicated cash support. In the CARES Act, eligible families received only $500 per child — half the amount allotted to adults. With the additional $600 relief payment that passed in December, that total has been brought up to $1,100. And while aid to schools and issuing the pandemic EBT card to families with children have been welcome, only cash provides the flexibility families need to address their unique circumstances.

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The long-term repercussions of this pandemic on children require a longer-term solution, not just one-off support. Under current law, struggling families often receive little or no relief through the Child Tax Credit. This is because the credit phases in at lower-incomes — meaning, those with lower earnings or who’ve lost their jobs due to the pandemic do not receive the full credit. Congress should fix this by making the entire $2,000 child tax credit available to all families, regardless of earnings. The provision would cost the federal government $25 billion. This is a mere fraction of the cost of another round of stimulus checks. The least that Congress can do is ensure our country’s most vulnerable children are protected.

Making the child credit fully available to poor and working-class families has several advantages. As cash, the credit can help replace family services disrupted due to the virus, insulating children from the developmental harms of crisis-related stress while providing families with the additional resources necessary for a swift yet safe return to pre-pandemic activities like school and work.

When it comes to pressure placed on families during the pandemic, closed schools are just the tip of the iceberg. Families are dealing with numerous sources of increased hardship, ranging from arranging childcare and safe transportation, to simply putting food on the table.

Children are highly susceptible to long-term consequences of psychological distress faced under disaster-like conditions. Initial studies suggest that children exhibit greater anxiety, difficulty concentrating, loneliness, and depression. These PTSD-like symptoms bear a striking resemblance to the adverse child impacts seen during the disruptive and often-times isolating months that follow a natural disaster.

Children in less financially secure families are at greater risk of developmental damage. Not only does fear of the virus and social isolation compound the preexisting stress of living in financially precarious circumstances, but these families also have fewer means to address these challenges head-on through remote learning and communication with one’s peers.

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Increased financial strains may also lead to a deterioration in parenting quality. One study examining the Great Recession found that a 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate was associated with a 20 percent increase in child maltreatment. These harms were smaller in states with more generous safety nets for the unemployed.

Finally, a payment to families can empower them to make the necessary arrangements to return to normalcy. Extended breaks from school are linked with long-run developmental consequences. Past experiences with school-related disruptions such as following Hurricane Katrina have been linked to poorer outcomes later in life. Parents shouldn’t be forced to risk their lives or fall into poverty to do what’s right for their children. Even modest assistance could make a massive difference in helping cash-strapped families return to normalcy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made everyone’s lives far more difficult, but especially so for families and children. Congress can help alleviate some of the added stress by including payments to families in any future COVID-19 relief package. By assisting these families, we can invest in ensuring that this disaster doesn’t permanently scar the next generation of Americans.

Robert Orr is a poverty and welfare policy associate at the Niskanen Center.