Adrift in the coronavirus pandemic: Families with children under age 5

Patricia Guzman sounds tired. She’s juggling a 2-month-old infant and a rambunctious 4-year-old who doesn’t understand why he’s been stuck inside so long. 

The panic buying in Chicago began in mid-March around the time that Guzman’s husband was sent home on mandatory leave from his job as a forklift operator. Worried about money, the couple quickly discovered nearby stores were sold out of baby formula. Guzman recalls sending her husband out to buy distilled water to mix what she had, and him coming up short.  

“Everybody was buying everything,” she said, “My husband had to go to five different stores to get me two gallons (of distilled water), you can’t just use tap water in baby formula.” 

As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into multiple weeks, it has had cascading effects on families, from stay-at-home orders and school closures, to layoffs, hospitalizations, and deaths. 

While public school districts throughout the country have quickly pivoted to provide meals, tech devices, and learning materials for K-12 children, low-income families with infants and toddlers have found no equivalent safety net. 

As a result, they’ve been largely left to figure it out on their own. But as hardship and limits on daily life grow, so do their needs, outpacing the existing ad-hoc efforts led by community groups, nonprofits, and churches.  

“This has been very hard,” said Guzman, who lives on Chicago’s Southwest Side in the Brighton Park neighborhood. 

Families with very young children can be fearful to venture out, even to the store, since they perceive their children as more vulnerable or harder to keep from touching everything in sight. That’s the case for Guzman.

It’s also the situation for Orzella Denton, a mother of two who lives in Englewood, and whose 5-year-old suffers from asthma as she does. 

Denton hasn’t been outside since schools closed. Her food supply is nearly gone. She didn’t know that Chicago Public Schools offered food delivery. 

A relative drops off groceries when she can. Denton said she has tried to stave off anxiety by emulating her daughters’ school schedules down to recess breaks, where they do stretches and jump up and down in the apartment. She doesn’t have a laptop or iPad, so they read books and work on sight words.

Rent and utilities are immediate concerns, said Denton, who was hospitalized earlier this school year. “I let my light bill get up high and I let my gas get up high, ’cause I’ve been sick. I’m just trying to keep up.”

The rapid onset and unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic left everyone scrambling: families, to be sure, but also governments and the patchwork of social service agencies overseeing health care networks and child care. Before coronavirus, the picture of support for young families was fragmented. To some, it now feels nonexistent. 

“People are numb or taking their time to figure it out,” said Maricela Garcia, the CEO of Gads Hill Center, which runs day care and family resource centers on the city’s South Side. “But there’s not time.”  Even the city, she said, “is still trying to figure out its role.”

Used to keeping track of all the data that early childhood centers must keep to comply with state and federal funding requirements, Garcia said her staff quickly started to track the needs of families with a simple phone survey the week Illinois schools closed. Her organization decided to make the survey weekly and she said has been blown away by comparing the results each week among 550-plus families. 

“The first week, it was baby formulas, wipes, diapers, and food,” she said, “but by the next week, it was, ‘We have to pay rent and we’ve lost jobs.’ We were not aware how much of that was happening in the communities,” she said, because some losses — among undocumented families or parents who are street food vendors, just to give two examples — do not show up in unemployment numbers.

“Maybe they made food and delivered it to a business, or they made tamales and sold them — that’s how they supplemented family income, and that’s gone. I looked at the numbers and I thought, this is really very rapidly going into a different set of needs.”  

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be studied by economists and researchers for decades, but one of the formal studies happening in real time is run by Anna Gassman-Pines of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and Elizabeth O. Ananat, an economist of Barnard College at Columbia University. 

Gassman-Pines said that the pair was already studying the family lives of hourly service workers in an unnamed city and re-surveyed them as the pandemic gripped the United States. The team collected 14 straight days of data about work hours, emotional well-being of both parents and children, and household needs in late February, as the crisis was starting to unfurl in some places. Then the team reached out to the families again in late March. 

She, too, has been surprised by the dramatic changes in what the families reported. 

“You could really see almost in real time just how sudden the drastic reduction in work hours was,” said Gassman-Pines. “What we really saw is that mental health really takes a hit once work hours drop and restrictions are put in place.”

Children weren’t immune to the stress and anxiety their parents felt. When researchers asked the parents how much of the day their child was “uncooperative” — that is, acting out or having behavior problems — they saw immediate changes. 

“Before the crisis, it was 6% of parents saying ‘some or all the time’ and that jumped to 10%. Those are pretty big shifts to happen over the course of a few weeks.”

One of the striking findings of the research was how few of the families were taking advantage of support available to them. 

Some of the options — such as grab-and-go meals at public schools or emergency child care — are so new that perhaps families do not know about them, researchers suggested. For some other benefits, such as food stamps or unemployment benefits, administrative barriers and qualification rules have prevented families from seeing immediate relief. Anecdotally, some advocates who work with families say undocumented immigrants fear applying for benefits could endanger their safety and future.

So what could make the difference? Gassman-Pines said she’s encouraged by reports from Europe that show when governments step in and help supplement wages for workers whose hours are curtailed, families report more stability and well-being. 

“This is not the kind of approach the U.S. has considered, but our results suggest that would be a really effective path for continuing to provide support for these vulnerable families,” she said. 

Currently, Gads Hill offers a donation box pick-up twice a week for families who need help with food and other necessities, including diapers. But to assist with rent and utility needs, some families simply need cash, and Garcia is trying to figure out how to raise it, either through philanthropic donations or fundraising.

“The state is encouraging landlords to not evict families, but that doesn’t mean they are not going to,” she said. “There are no enforcement measures.”

Cherelle Bilal, a Bronzeville single mother of four, said that the Chicago Housing Authority’s message has been that residents may delay rent payments until after the stay-at-home orders are lifted, but it won’t be easier to pay the bill when it is double or triple later.

“If I don’t pay this bill now, it’s going to hurt even worse,” she said. 

Guzman and her young family found a lifeline through the Gads Hill organization, which runs a home-visiting program for her 4-year-old. Before school closures, a teacher from the center would visit her son weekly through a publicly funded home-based education program. Then, when a stay-at-home-order prevented visits, the teacher started a weekly virtual check-ins. Through that she arranged for delivery of formula and diapers. 

“We were so, so grateful,” Guzman said. 

But non-profit community-based organizations have limited reach. Illinois spends about $1 on early education programs for every $5 it spends on K-12, and, as a result, according to a 2019 report from Advance Illinois, only about half of the state’s low-income children 4 or under participate in any sort of government-funded program. That potentially leaves thousands of families without any connection to a community organization or school district at all. 

Fresh fruit and milk have been hard for Guzman to come by. She filled out a form to request food delivery from Chicago Public Schools’ meal distribution program. But no one ever called her, she said.  

She wonders if it’s because she doesn’t have children in the school district — her children are too young to attend public school.

She said a steady supply of food and formula would help her. She also would love Internet access. Her son has an i-Pad but they don’t have Internet so she uses the data plan from her phone. 

After securing help with food and a respite from her utility bills, Denton, the mother in Englewood, also described digital needs  — her daughters are both enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, which is distributing 100,000 machines across the next few weeks.

Instead of dwelling on what her family lacks, she prefers to “keep her spirits up,” so her two daughters will do likewise. She said they’ve been planning the girls’ upcoming birthday celebrations together in hope that the stay-at-home orders will end before May. When it comes to her 5-year-old, “All she is talking about is how she wants to jump in a bouncy house and have her face painted and ice cream.”

The mother fears what happens next. “It hurts and it bothers me,” she said. But, she’s quick to add: “I don’t show it.”