Depending on the yardstick used, child poverty in the United States is 65 percent to 90 percent greater than the average in its four main English-speaking peers (Australia, Britain, Canada and Ireland). Among them, America’s public spending on children, as a share of its economy, consistently ranks last.
Money helps children in part because of what it buys — food, housing, better schools, health care and summer camps. But it also important in a less obvious way: It reduces stress, which can reach toxic levels in poor households. The academies’ report warns that children chronically exposed to excessive stress can suffer “permanent changes in brain structure and function,” leading to problems from learning disabilities to heart disease and diabetes. Some scientists have found that toxic stress can even alter children’s chromosomes.
If poverty was that harsh before the pandemic, imagine what is doing to children now, amid mass unemployment, closed schools and fears of a deadly pandemic.
This crisis targets the needy. Unemployment rates have grown by 4.8 percentage points for college graduates, but 9.7 points for workers without a high school degree. Perhaps no one is suffering more than undocumented immigrants, who are ineligible for government aid and whose households include more than four million American children.
There is no age group for whom the pandemic does not pose a threat. Toxic stress has been shown to harm infants still in the womb. School closures will confine rich and poor kids to homes even more unequal than their classrooms, at the risk of widening the achievement gap. (Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford sociologist, has found poor eighth graders have the math and reading skills of rich kids in fourth grade.) It’s hard to measure child hunger amid a pandemic, but four different surveys show sharp increases, and food banks have seen astounding lines.
“The kids are not all right — every aspect of their lives is being affected,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus on Children, a Washington advocacy group.
At special risk of long-term harm are young people joining the work force, for whom the earnings penalties are large and lasting. Till von Wachter, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that a five-point rise in unemployment rates (an increase smaller than today’s) costs disadvantaged workers about a quarter of their first few years’ pay, because they work less and receive lower wages. For workers without a high school degree, it takes more than a decade for their earnings to fully recover, with the total losses over that time equal to a full year’s pay.