Children of working poor hit harder by pandemic. We must invest in them and their families.

A mother and her children wait for their food on a patio. Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images.

While doctors and researchers haven’t unraveled all of the mysteries of the new coronavirus, there are some things we do know with certainty. 

The economic and social fallout from the pandemic have hit those who are experiencing poverty the hardest. In part because so many working poor individuals don’t have the privilege of working from home and because their jobs often put them at high risk of exposure, they’ve experienced higher infection rates. They’re more likely to lack access to health care. They’re also more likely to have lost their jobs.

These haunting and tragic realities also are true for children experiencing poverty. When parents are out of work, evicted from their homes or can’t afford to put food on the table, their children also suffer — in the short and the long term. They don’t just go to bed hungry, scared and anxious on particular nights. Those experiences can be prolonged, stunting their physical growth and the very development of their little brains. 

Young children who don’t get adequate food, don’t have access to health care and don’t have enriching and nurturing early learning experiences often are impacted for life. They can suffer from physical and social developmental delays that make it harder to learn. They’re more likely to start kindergarten behind. And they’re more likely to lack the social-emotional skills that help them follow rules and work and play well with others in the classroom. 

Especially as we work to get to the other side of the pandemic, we have to invest in young children and their families. If we don’t make smart decisions now, the damage will be incalculable. 

All the things we know about the value of prevention and responding early to young children’s needs are truer now than ever. What’s different is that COVID-19 has ratcheted up the urgency the level of need is simply greater than pre-pandemic.

Before the pandemic, more than 100 child-serving programs, health and wellness organizations, and business groups from across Ohio had come together to support early investments in children from 0-5 — when children’s brains are developing fastest and they’re being set up for success. They’re supporting Groundwork Ohio’s Ready, Set, Soar Ohio campaign.

These groups understand that:

  • Pregnant women who have access to quality health care are more likely to give birth to healthy children.
  • Moms-to-be and new parents who receive evidence-based home visiting are empowered to do the healthy and right things for their young children.
  • Young children who get consistent medical care and receive early interventions for illnesses or a disability are more likely to thrive at school and later in life.
  • When young children are in high-quality child care and early learning programs, that enrichment helps build their brains, creating the neurological wiring that is the foundation for later learning.

If we don’t invest in young children — pandemic or no pandemic — eventually we’ll have to respond, and it will be more expensive. For example, waiting to treat developmental delays until children get to school costs more, and success is more difficult than intervening when they’re 1, 2 or 3. When children’s physical and mental health needs are neglected early, they often need remedial help at school. That, too, has a high price tag. Some youngsters will be held back — an expensive and often socially damaging experience.

Children who enter school behind, struggle to catch up. Some research suggests that white children just stay behind, while the early gaps for Black children actually grow as they progress through school. The repercussions of these facts aren’t hard to predict — fewer young people will go on to graduate from high school or enroll in college. They’ll earn less as adults, and they’ll have more health issues. 

But the forecast doesn’t have to be bleak — not if we and policy leaders acknowledge that children can’t care for and heal themselves. That job is the responsibility of us — the adults around them. Nobel-Prize winning economist James Heckman argues that investing early isn’t just the morally right thing to do; his research shows that doing so is in our own economic self-interest. Heckman finds there’s a 13% return on investment for high-quality, comprehensive early childhood programs.

Today’s children are tomorrow’s citizens and our future workforce. If we don’t nurture them when they’re young, we shouldn’t be surprised if they’re underprepared or ill-equipped to solve the challenges that our country and world face. 

Investing in young children shouldn’t be controversial or need interminable debate. We just need to follow the evidence and common sense.

Shannon Jones is Executive Director of Groundwork Ohio, which champions high-quality early learning and healthy development strategies that support pregnant women, young children, and their families.

Shannon Jones
As Executive Director, Shannon leads Groundwork Ohio’s statewide effort to advance quality early care and education so every Ohio child has the best chance for lifelong success. Prior to joining Groundwork, Shannon served in the Ohio General Assembly for a decade as a state representative and a state senator, where she was chosen by her colleagues for key leadership posts in both chambers. She is the only woman in her party, and first in Ohio history, ever to achieve the distinction of election to the leadership teams in both chambers. Known as a leader who is willing to tackle the most difficult and complex issues, Shannon used her trusted influence to put kids at the top of the legislative agenda. Her efforts resulted in a renewed focus by the state on policies that support the health and educational opportunities of Ohio’s most vulnerable children. Shannon’s most significant legislative effort led to a statewide bipartisan mandate to improve Ohio’s abysmal infant mortality epidemic. She has continued to provide this same spirit of leadership at Groundwork with her fierce commitment to tell the full story of racial and geographic disparities experienced by Ohio’s youngest children through the Ohio Race and Rural Equity Report. Shannon earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati, and in 2008 was selected for the Rodel Fellowship by the prestigious Aspen Global Leadership Institute. She also currently serves as a Warren County Commissioner and as a board member for the Health Policy Institute of Ohio and the YWCA of Dayton.