Across the country, millions of children are filing back into classrooms, many for the first time in more than a year. In that time, the COVID-19 pandemic has both magnified and exacerbated the wealth gap among America’s families, resulting in record numbers of children facing food insecurity, homelessness, and other social circumstances that will have a lasting impact on their futures and long-term health.
Before the pandemic, 10.5 million U.S. children lived in poverty. Between May and October 2020, an additional 8 million Americans slid into poverty. Of those, 2.5 million were children.
An equitable society begins with our children, and it will take all of us—payers, medical providers, and community-based organizations (CBOs)—to raise children and families out of poverty. Programs that address social determinants of health (SDoH) in particular play a critical role in improving the lives and health of America’s children.
Housing is linked to pediatric health outcomes
Housing is a core social driver and a child without stable housing does not have the security of having a place to rest, play, or do schoolwork, or the peace of mind in knowing where they will be sleeping that night.
The affordable housing crisis was made much worse by the pandemic, with millions of Americans struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. With the Supreme Court recently blocking the federal eviction moratorium, millions of Americans are at risk of losing their homes, which is going to have a lasting impact on children’s health and well-being.
A recent study showed that poor-quality housing—such as housing with holes in the floor, pest infestations, or plumbing issues—was associated with poor pediatric health outcomes and a greater number of medical visits for children.
Families who are unhoused or housing insecure need direct assistance immediately, including emergency shelter, rent relief funds, and legal aid to fight evictions. Partnerships between health systems and CBOs can help to screen for housing insecurity and solve many of these housing problems.
In Pima County, Arizona, for instance, nonprofit Community Home Repair Project of Arizona (CHRPA) partners with local government and a network of healthcare and social services agencies to provide low-income homeowners with free or low-cost home repairs—whether that means fixing a home’s indoor plumbing or repairing a cooling system.
Food insecurity is at an all-time high
In 2020, as unemployment rates skyrocketed, the number of food-insecure households reached an all-time high of an estimated 45 million people (including 15 million children). When schools closed in March 2020, millions of children risked losing access to critical school-based meal programs, but all across the country, school districts, local governments, and CBO partners pivoted quickly, offering brown bag meals, food vouchers, or food boxes.
With the school year returning, the same problems are resurfacing. Thankfully, the Biden Administration just announced a permanent 27 percent increase in average monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. This increase, the largest ever in the history of the program, is long overdue for the 42 million Americans who utilize SNAP.
The SNAP program is linked to lower healthcare costs and improved health outcomes in recipients, including improved birth outcomes. Children whose families participate in SNAP have a reduced risk of developing major health problems later in life. But the SNAP application process can be intimidating and complicated. Many benefits offices remain closed due to COVID-19, and applications have moved almost entirely online, a barrier for those without access to the internet. There’s also a stigma in many communities around government assistance, causing some eligible individuals to forgo benefits.
CBOs are uniquely poised to connect individuals to food assistance and support them through the SNAP application process by providing computer access and assistance with completing forms or compiling documents. In Houston, for example, the Chinese Community Center offers workshops and application assistance for those applying for SNAP and other public benefits.
Digital and education gaps cause social isolation and exacerbate mental health problems
The nationwide shift to remote work and schooling has exposed a stark digital gap, particularly in rural areas and communities of color. An estimated 30 percent of school children (up to 16 million) do not have sufficient internet or device access to sustain remote learning, leaving them without important educational resources and social connections during a critical, traumatic year.
Among youth, social isolation and pandemic-related stress have contributed to a significant increase in depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2020 saw an increase of between 24 and 31 percent in mental health emergency room visits for people under the age of 18, compared to the same time period in 2019.
As such, the development and delivery of youth and family-focused mental health services is a high priority. The healthcare system should increase screenings for mental health and implement strategies to prevent and account for emergency interventions. Qualified social services agencies should partner with schools, health systems, and payers to provide counseling (phone, online, and in-person), mental health resources, and educational support to at-risk families and youth.
Numerous programs are bridging the digital divide by offering internet hot spots and computers or other devices that make it possible for youth to engage in remote learning when necessary, and to maintain lines of communication with teachers, peers, counselors, and healthcare professionals.
With Healthify, powered by WellSky, we offer youth and family services, as well as education support, after-school programs, food delivery services, housing assistance, and other social services which help protect the health and well-being of children.
To learn more about our services and how we can partner, please contact us here.