Is coronavirus dangerous for kids? Yes — but not for the reasons you may think.
Youth appears to be a protective factor from the coronavirus. Although younger folks can still transmit it to older people, symptoms are milder to nonexistent in young people who contract the disease. But that doesn’t mean the disease isn’t a huge threat to children and infants.
As the virus spreads, millions of children and babies from low-income families could face severe risks of hunger, homelessness, and other dangers unless protective economic measures are taken immediately.
In the U.S., the Institute for Policy Studies and the Poor People’s Campaign have estimated that between 135 million and 140 million people in 2018 were poor or low-income. Of that number, nearly 40 million are children.
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Over half of our nation’s children, in short, are at serious risk from the economic impacts of the coronavirus on their families.
Already, necessary and effective social safety-net supports have been steadily eroding and under attack during the Trump administration — from steep cuts to food stamps and school lunch assistance to cruel proposed restrictions on disability assistance and Medicaid.
And now, with the threat of quarantine looming over sick workers and school closures threatening food access and child-care shortfalls, the lack of paid sick leave for tens of millions of workers could be catastrophic for low-income families. So could health care costs for the 87 million uninsured or underinsured Americans, with even “free” coronavirus tests resulting in thousands of dollars of hospital expenses.
The results of reduced work hours and unexpected medical bills aren’t just tighter budgets. For the most vulnerable families, they could mean layoffs, hunger, evictions, and foreclosures, increasing the risk of housing insecurity and related health problems. As colleges also close, many young adults who are financially or housing insecure may have nowhere to go, or lose their federal work study jobs.
We need to address these issues immediately, before the crisis gets worse than it already is.
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Perhaps the single most important thing the federal government can do right now is pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is now before the House. While no one piece of legislation can get at the breadth of the public response needed, this will go a long way toward mitigating the worst economic impacts on poor and low-income children.
The bill includes emergency funding for the nutrition programs that support low-income mothers who lose their jobs during this crisis. Alongside other emergency food and food distribution provisions, it frees up emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds and waivers so children can receive meals during school closures.
More comprehensively, it also provides for emergency paid sick leave, enhanced unemployment insurance, free COVID-19 testing, protections for front-line health workers, and increased federal funding for Medicaid as state costs rise due to the extra strain this virus is imposing.
By contrast, the Trump administration’s main proposal so far, a payroll tax cut to benefit both employers and employees, is problematic for many reasons. Workers need relief, but the benefit would be too small — and come at the expense of paying into Social Security and Medicare. If you’ve lost your job due to the virus, you’d get no benefit at all.
A more effective approach would be simply sending checks to all people, regardless of their employment status. This is hardly a radical idea — it’s what the George W. Bush administration did in the early days of the financial crisis. And any temporary tax credits for employers should be tied to their passing on the benefit to employees in the form of paid leave or maintaining wages for employees who lose work hours during the pandemic.
Going further, the National Employment Law Center is also supporting a robust disaster unemployment assistance program and a strengthened unemployment insurance plan, which would support workers who lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic, provide for work-sharing arrangements instead of outright layoffs, and waive work-search and waiting requirements for people who get unemployment assistance. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has an emergency housing security plan that calls for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during this time.
What else? Other needs include child-care funding for when schools are closed, and health support for children in detention and for parents who are incarcerated — without it counting toward a public charge prohibition for immigrant families. (Relatedly, ICE should not be allowed anywhere near health centers.)
This is not a comprehensive list, but these are among the critical policies that should be enacted immediately. Thankfully, the likelihood of the coronavirus itself hurting children and babies is quite low. But the harm they face from the adverse economic impacts of this pandemic could be devastating if we don’t act now.
Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
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