Food security, housing security and mental health for families: RI ranks near the bottom

“By measuring food security, the ability to make rent or mortgage payments, health insurance status, and mental health concerns, the [report] identified four pain points for children and families that require immediate action… States in the bottom 10 that were doing worse on three or all four categories were Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Texas.”

December 14, 2020, 12:01 am

By Steve Ahlquist

A shocking new report from the Annie E Casey Foundation, Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and a Roadmap for Recovery, shows that Rhode Island is falling below average when it comes to ensuring housing stability, mental health, and child hunger for families.

The KIDS COUNT report used data gathered from weekly weekly surveys conducted by the United States Census Bureau (the Census Pulse Survey) that shows that families are struggling to meet basic needs during this pandemic “while managing school, work, and mental health.”

“By measuring food security, the ability to make rent or mortgage payments, health insurance status, and mental health concerns, the Casey Foundation identified four pain points for children and families that require immediate action,” writes Rhode Island KIDS COUNT in a press release. “Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Hampshire appeared among the top 10 states in terms of doing better on three or all four of the pain points identified in the report. States in the bottom 10 that were doing worse on three or all four categories were Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Texas.”

Percentages of Rhode Island families with children who have experienced challenges as measured by these four indicators are listed below. According to the Census Pulse Survey, in Rhode Island:

  1. FOOD SECURITY: Nearly one in five families with children (18%) said that in the most recent week, there was sometimes or always not enough to eat in their household (compared to United States average of 14%).
  2. HOUSING STABILITY: Nearly one in four households with kids (23%) said they had only slight confidence or no confidence at all that they would be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment on time (compared to United States average of 18%).
  3. MENTAL HEALTH: A quarter of respondents with children in their households (25%) reported that they had felt down, depressed, or hopeless in the previous week, indicating a widespread need for access to mental health care (compared to United States average of 21%.
  4. AFFORDABLE HEALTH CARE: 8% of adults in households with kids did not have health insurance (compared to United States average of 12%).

“All children deserve to have their basic needs met in normal times and in times of crisis,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, Executive Director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. “Too many Rhode Islanders were struggling to survive economically before this crisis. Now that the devastating effects of the pandemic are falling on the shoulders of our most vulnerable children and families, we need immediate and sustained action to ensure the best outcomes. Our leaders have taken some important actions to mitigate the effects of the crisis on kids, but Congress needs to do more. We call on Congress to pass another major relief bill that addresses the urgent needs of children and families.”

Though congressional action is needed to prevent the worst possible outcomes, the report does have some suggestions that can be implemented at the state and local levels.

  • In some states, fewer than 20% of unemployed workers received any support before the pandemic, and those excluded were disproportionately workers of color. Unemployment insurance did not rescue everyone who lost a job; many workers were ineligible or unable to claim it, and some families’ needs exceeded the temporary support. Expanding eligibility to include contract, gig and other workers would help more people weather gaps in income. In addition, more states should consider adopting a modest allowance for each child in a household. Twelve states have already done this. Even providing families with an extra $5 to $15 per week per child – as Iowa now offers, for example – would help parents make sure their children have enough food to eat.
  • Researchers have estimated that school systems need to spend 100% to 200% more per student from a low-income family and 100% to 150% more per English language learner in order to provide every student with the opportunity to achieve success. Yet some states provide as little as 10% more, in part because of heavy reliance on property taxes to fund schools. Additionally, equity policies in local school districts are a potentially powerful tool needed now for creating environments in which all kids can thrive. Equity policies serve as a guidepost for the work of a district and can provide the framework for how to embed a focus on racial equity in areas such as instruction, curriculum, discipline and resource allocation. They will be especially needed as schools face the reality that disparate access to technology and other resources is leading to more significant learning loss for some students during the pandemic than for others.
  • Children most often receive mental health services through the schools they attend. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1, but only three states – New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming – have ratios at least that low. Federal and state governments and local school districts could direct more funding toward hiring and equitably distributing counselors or making other investments in mental health services.

More generally, the Annie E Casey Foundation is calling on elected officials and other decision makers to:

  • Put racial and ethnic equity first in policymaking by using disaggregated data and engaging community stakeholders. This should ensure that the policymaking process is informed by the diverse perspectives of those hardest hit by the crisis and created in partnership with communities. This approach should underpin any concrete policy actions.
  • Prioritize the physical and mental health of all children by guaranteeing that any vaccine will be available without cost as a factor and by retaining and strengthening the Affordable Care Act. To promote mental health, particularly in times of crisis, policymakers should work to reduce the student-to-school-counselor ratio in all school settings to levels recommended by mental health professionals.
  • Help families with children achieve financial stability and bolster their well-being by expanding access to unemployment insurance for part-time and gig economy workers, low-wage workers, and students and by expanding child care access. Additionally, policymakers should eliminate barriers to accessing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). And beyond any temporary housing assistance programs aimed at heading off a foreclosure or eviction crisis, federal policymakers should expand the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program and increase the overall availability of public housing.
  • Ensure schools are better funded, more equitably funded and ready to meet the needs of students disparately affected by the pandemic by boosting school funding to protect against the economic impact of the pandemic, build maintenance-of-equity requirements into relief packages and address disparities in technology access at home and in the classroom.

“America’s children are in crisis,” said Annie E Casey Foundation President and CEO Lisa Hamilton. “All across the country, families with children are struggling to overcome an unprecedented convergence of emergencies. We need immediate and decisive action from policymakers that prioritizes equitable solutions to help families survive this catastrophe.”

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