August 31, 2020
Since the pandemic hit, nearly 50% of responding parents in a new study of low-income families said they had lost their jobs or had decreased work hours and experienced food insecurity, according to Georgetown psychology professor Anna Johnson.
“These pervasive experiences of food insecurity are linked to feelings of depression,” says Johnson, who helps lead Georgetown’s Child Development and Social Policy lab.
She says some families reported especially high levels of food insecurity – including 61% of Hispanic/Latinx families, 52% of American Indian/Alaskan Native families, 43% of Black families and 28% of white families.
Impacting Family Ecosystems
“The finding replicates other studies that have found widespread evidence of racial injustice reflected in the impacts of the pandemic,” says fellow psychology professor Deborah Phillips.
“As everyone knows, when the pandemic hit, many workplaces closed and many low-income parents whose job situations were already unstable lost their jobs or had reduced hours and pay,” Johnson explains. “Those experiences impacted the family ecosystem, including children’s development, stress and well-being and parent-child interactions.”
Nearly half of responding parents in the study, which looked at the effect of COVID-19 disruptions and stressors on low-income families with young children, also said their kids have experienced emotional or behavioral problems since the pandemic began.
1,000 Low-Income Families
Johnson and her research team, which includes Ph.D. students Owen Schochet (G’21), Jane Hutchison (G’21) and Anne Partika (G’23), embedded a survey about the effects of COVID-19 into a longitudinal NIH-funded study of approximately 1,000 low-income families in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
That study, directed by Johnson and Phillips, is in partnership with colleagues at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and the Tulsa Public Schools, which has been lauded for its successful pre-K program.
The study began in 2016 with low-income families with 3-year-old children, who were about to finish first grade when COVID-19 hit.
Parent and Teacher Well-Being
While the larger study measures child achievement, family and teacher well-being and other factors related to these children each spring and fall, the last set of surveys and assessments took place before the pandemic hit, and Johnson wants to see how they are faring now.
In addition to high rates of food insecurity, the strongest loss of income in Johnson’s study also appears to be for Hispanic families, at 65%, with multiracial families and American Indian/Alaskan Native families both at 59%, Black families at 51%, white families at 49% and Asian families at 33 percent.
“Obviously, we couldn’t do interviews in person, so we sent out an electronic survey to parents and teachers asking a range of questions about stress and learning in a virtual environment,” Johnson says.
Pandemic’s Negative Effects
The survey asked questions about potential changes in parental depression, anxiety, sleep, loneliness, physical health, household routines, food access, employment, health and mental health care and more.
“I think it is nearly certain that COVID-19 has had negative effects on young children and family functioning,” Johnson says. “The balancing act that parents are having to do is challenging enough for financially stable families, but low-income families may have to choose between making rent and buying groceries.”
“These low-income kids are also more likely to have unreliable internet access,” she adds. “Some of them don’t have devices beyond a parent’s smartphone, which makes connecting to teachers and classmates for learning, nearly impossible.”
She also notes that opportunities for learning shrank dramatically with the shift to remote instruction, especially for children with special needs. Teachers also struggled to motivate their young learners while parents struggled to find the time to help them, she says.
This press release was produced by Georgetown University.The views expressed here are the author’s own.