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Reinforcing the Safety Net

Virginia’s Children and families and the Pandemic

It was mid-March 2020 when Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency to reduce the spread of COVID-19. He announced, “Our top priority is to make sure Virginians stay safe and healthy, and that our response to this situation leaves no one behind.” 

Within the first two weeks of that state of emergency, there was a concerted effort to limit people from gathering. Business and personal travel ceased, in-person meetings were canceled, and large-scale events were postponed as the country learned to socially distance. Public health officials ramped up messaging on the importance of hand-washing, and bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes flew off the shelves.

There was a fundamental shift in how we move, gather, work, and live. Before the pandemic, too many families with children were struggling to survive economically and now, many more face devastating hardship and instability, unsure of how they will afford food, housing, and healthcare services.

This became evident as public schools closed and parents were forced to figure out long-term childcare. School districts grappled with the challenge of trying to ensure that students who relied on meals at school did not go hungry and that learning was made accessible to all. Even with uncertainty about the long-term ramifications of the pandemic, the focus, again, was on meeting immediate and short-term needs.

What the Pandemic Has Revealed

The reality is that many households are dependent on wrap-around services, and the longer children were unable to attend school, the more these challenges began to surface. On top of that, the lack of social interaction with friends began to negatively impact the mental health of children of all ages.

What’s important to remember is that while communities may be good at responding to an immediate crisis, the same skill is not demonstrated in planning for and implementing an adequate response for the future. Not every family has the luxury of that level of long-term planning, nor should they be responsible for solving systemic issues. That’s why there are policymakers at every level of government.

What we’ve learned is that we need more than quick fixes. The stimulus checks, eviction moratoriums, and CARES Act funding provided immediate relief in the short term for some, but there are many significant challenges that have yet to be addressed. 

Meeting Basic Needs 

Last year, more than 250,000 children – nearly 13 percent of Virginia’s children – were living in poverty. This was the lowest number and percentage we’ve had in the Commonwealth since 2009. Now that number has increased – primarily along lines of race and income. 

Since March 13, 2020 – when the U.S. government declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency – 46 percent of all adults in Virginia living in households with children lost employment income. That number continues to climb, especially for communities of color where the rate is 60 percent for Black people. 

We know when income is impacted, so is a family’s ability to provide stable housing and ensure there is food on the table. According to Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and the Urgent Need to Respond, a report published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the percentage of families in Virginia who sometimes or often don’t have enough food to eat has increased from 10 percent to 13 percent. For Black families, that rate is nearly double the overall average in Virginia at 25 percent. 

Similarly, the number of families in Virginia expressing slight or no confidence in paying their rent or mortgage on time is 16 percent, with Black families coming in at 36 percent and Latinx families at 18 percent.

This is a time when it’s absolutely critical to be able to see a doctor, yet one-third of families delayed getting medical care because of the pandemic. Nearly one-quarter of families did not get medical care at all. On a national scale, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic with nearly four times the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 compared to white individuals.

The data trends we are seeing tracks with existing racial and ethnic inequities that are embedded in this country. To be clear, the pandemic exacerbated and amplified underlying systemic issues but did not create them. As a society, we have a responsibility to address both the pandemic and racism as public health crises on individual, community, and systemic levels. 

Smart and Fair Policies: Finding a Way Forward

The truth is that we cannot go back and undo what’s been done. But we can learn from the mistakes of the past and present in moving forward to create long-term, equitable policies that meet the basic needs of children. Specifically, it’s important to use data in prioritizing racial and ethnic equity when creating policies. 

Both the Virginia General Assembly and Congress will have to do more to create smart and fair policies to support children and families, in addition to mitigating the effects of the pandemic. This includes robust federal and state interventions to provide economic relief, access to affordable and quality healthcare, behavioral health services, education, reliable nutrition, safe housing, and appropriate childcare provisions – all of which are essential to a child’s quality of life, stability, and growth. 

Instead of piecemeal solutions, it’s time to take a hard look at how we got here and what needs to be done to help families emerge healthier and stronger. Equity has to be more than a buzzword. We must be intentional in our work and advocacy in dismantling barriers that prevent our children from thriving and living full, healthy lives.

Virginia must prioritize the needs of every child, not just a few. Our communities and the Commonwealth will be a better place for all for having done so. The Virginia legislature is scheduled to adjourn in early March. Now is the time to call, email, or write our legislators to let them know that children are our priority. 

Raising your voice on issues you care about is not complicated, and it can make a real difference. Legislators listen most to their constituents because we can vote for them – or not. Did you know it takes contacts from only about a dozen constituents to make an issue a top priority for a legislator?

First, determine who your state senator and delegate are. You can find this out easily by visiting the General Assembly’s website and clicking on Who’s My Legislator? The website is virginiageneralassembly.gov, and the link is at the very top of the page.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you communicate with your legislators during the General Assembly session. If you call, you are likely to speak with their secretaries or legislative aides.

1. Identify yourself and say you are a constituent.

2. Keep it short and to the point, focusing on one issue. Tell them whether you’d like the legislator to support or oppose a bill or budget item.

3. Make the issue local or personal. Briefly state why it matters in your community or to your family.

4. Always thank them for their time.

To see a complete Legislative Advocacy Guide, click here.

The legislature is scheduled to adjourn in mid-March. Now is the time for us to call, email, or write our legislators to let them know that children are our priority.

Amy Strite is the CEO of Voices for Virginia’s Children, the Commonwealth’s only independent, multi-issue child policy and advocacy organization. Using data and independent policy research, the organization advocates for sound policy solutions and mobilize support to meet the needs of Virginia’s children. Learn more at vakids.org.
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