The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on children and families who are struggling to meet basic needs while stretching nonprofits that provide essential services around food, shelter and mental health, according to a new report.
In mid-December, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation released a special COVID-19 Kids Count report that featured Michigan-specific data and highlights the pain points families face. In general, families are struggling with hunger, housing, health insurance and mental health, the survey found.
An average of 62 percent of Michigan households with children have lost employment income since March 13, 2020, according to the report, “Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and a Roadmap for Recovery.” That percentage has declined in more recent weeks but is still hovering at 51 percent.
Kids Count releases a data book every spring, but the Annie E. Casey Foundation developed the special 50-state report of recent household data to assess how families are faring during the public health crisis, said Kelsey Perdue, the Kids Count director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.
The survey examined data from weekly surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, substantiating reports of families challenged to meet basic needs along with managing school, work and mental health.
“We’re looking at pretty timely data specific to the pandemic,” Perdue said. “This is giving us some concrete data and information to pair with the stories we’ve been hearing this year. It’s a more concrete idea of how families with children are doing.”
The Michigan League for Public Policy and its Kids Count project have used the data to support several COVID-19 relief measures, including a six-week extension of emergency unemployment benefits, a moratorium on water shutoffs and the $100 million COVID relief fund proposed in recent weeks by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. On Dec. 29, Whitmer signed a $106 million relief package that includes an unemployment benefit extension, small business relief and direct payments to some workers.
“This data is really relevant moving forward,” Perdue said. “The impact is still going to be there. Sixty percent of families have lost employment income since March, and it’s still hovering around 50 percent. That has a cascading effect on how to meet basic needs as well as access to health insurance.”
Equitable food systems needed
Partners of the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force report food insecurity is a significant need that has increased since the pandemic began. Locally, food banks are seeing more new families as well as a higher frequency of visits, said Wende Randall, director of the Essential Needs Task Force.
The goal has been to make sure food distribution centers and access points are welcoming and barrier free, and that there isn’t a feeling of judgment for those first-time food bank visitors.
“What is interesting here is the overall food supply for West Michigan has been fairly steady,” Randall said. “The challenge is ensuring we have nutritious foods where people can access them easily.”
Erin Skidmore, Good Food Systems director at Access of West Michigan, said the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 has highlighted the disparities that existed long before the pandemic began. Access of West Michigan works with community centers, the faith-based community, health sites and food pantries to address the root causes of poverty, including the need for living wage jobs, affordable housing, and equitable access to food.
“There is a need for an emergency response, but part of the problem with charity food is that we aren’t working to prevent the need from being there,” she said. “We are simply band-aiding the response.”
Access of West Michigan partners have seen an increased number of unemployed workers and people accessing food resources for the first time, though some food relief sites have reported seeing fewer people as more locations pop up.
“This year, it’s been interesting to see all the disparities highlighted, but they are not new,” she said. “So many people are living one accident or one hospital visit away from the poverty level. We need to address the fact that there aren’t living wage jobs.”
Housing, education gaps
The pandemic has continued to tax housing resources for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Last month, Mel Trotter Ministries opened an overflow shelter for individuals in the former Purple East building across from Heartside Park to address a ballooning homeless encampment there, which pushed city officials to clear the area in mid-December.
Family Promise of Grand Rapids in March saw an immediate increase in families seeking shelter — from 35 to 70 families. The need has remained steady throughout the year, with 85 families staying in an emergency hotel shelter two days before Christmas, said Kate O’Keefe, Family Promise’s director of development and community engagement. Family Promise moved families from a shelter setting into extended-stay hotels because of COVID-19 concerns.
“It is a huge need in West Michigan,” O’Keefe said. “We have families who are living paycheck to paycheck and can’t make ends meet.”
Family Promise has advocated for the extended moratorium on evictions and provides a variety of support to families in the program. Most are young, single moms with young children. The goal is to get them into permanent housing they can afford, and many clients have paid ahead on their bills when they do receive assistance.
“These are hard-working families who are doing everything they can to stay in their housing during a global pandemic,” she said.
Randall said families — and agencies that support them — are worried about housing issues, educational disparities, and access to mental health resources.
“We definitely have been hearing that education is a very stressful area for families right now and part of that is the whole digital divide,” Randall said.
Nonprofits crucial for policy action
Looking ahead in 2021, nonprofits can use the Kids Count data to advocate for policies and funding to support services that help families.
“The nonprofit voices — those on the ground working with families who see these numbers through real stories — are a necessary component of advocacy,” Perdue said.
The Kids Count data helps substantiate the need when making a case for funding, along with building collaborations among social service providers and other local groups to make sure people aren’t falling through the cracks.
“We’re working together to both share resources as well as build relationships across the network of providers so people can enter the system through one door and be supported,” Randall said. “We need to be able to look at the different types of data, so we can see how they intersect so we can come up with more comprehensive help.”
Like Skidmore, O’Keefe agrees the need for affordable housing and living-wage jobs are complex, community-wide issues that were bubbling up before COVID. Various stakeholders are working to “redesign the homelessness system and catch families more upstream,” O’Keefe said.
“To get away from the Band-Aids, we need to address why people are needing one in the first place,” Skidmore noted.
Skidmore also wants to see more investment in the local farm economy, adding that nonprofits can use the Kids Count data to collaborate and combine resources in 2021.
“There are so many farmers themselves who are on food stamps and food programs,” she said. “For food, for housing, for any of the larger systems that are really really broken down right now, we’ve got to get creative and work together and make more connections.”
Pre-pandemic disparities for families of color, single-parent households or those living at or near poverty are being magnified, but the crisis has hit all income levels. As the recovery begins, government, advocacy organizations, businesses and citizens need to take a hard look at the ineffective systems and processes that led to severely inequitable outcomes, advocates say.
“The people who may be in that middle class or upper middle class want to get back to normal, but it was a normal that wasn’t benefitting all people in the community,” Randall said. “We need entire systems to shift for all people to be in a better situation as we come out of the pandemic.”
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