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Janresseger: COVID-19 Widens Inequality Among America’s Young People, But So Far, There is No Plan to Address It

What are all the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown obstacles in the paths of America’s poorest young people?  The numbers are staggering. Hardship is so overwhelming that it is almost impossible to grasp the deeper meaning of the data in the reports from major policy organizations.

Here is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “Households with children are more likely to have trouble affording food or paying the rent or mortgage than households without children. Based on five weeks of Census Bureau Pulse Survey data collected from June 18 to July 21, we estimate that: Approximately 19 million children, or 1 in 4 children, live in a household that isn’t getting enough to eat, is behind on rent or mortgage payments, or both. These levels of hardship are substantially higher among Black and Latino children, reflecting longstanding inequities that the current crisis has exacerbated.”

The Economic Policy Institute describes barriers to learning: “The pandemic has exacerbated well-documented opportunity gaps that put low-income students at a disadvantage relative to their better-off peers. Opportunity gaps are gaps in access to the conditions and resources that enhance learning and development, and include access to food and nutrition, housing, health insurance and care, and financial relief measures. One of the most critical opportunity gaps is the uneven access to the devices and internet access critical to learning online. This digital divide has made it virtually impossible for some students to learn during the pandemic.”

First Focus on Children tracks family suffering:”The Household Pulse Survey from the Census Bureau tracks food insecurity, financial hardship, and other indicators of child and family well-being since the outbreak of COVID-19. USDA’s annual Household Food Security report monitors the extent and severity of food insecurity across the United States during a given year through a nationally representative survey. The USDA report found that in roughly 7% of food-insecure households, parents and caregivers are able to shield their children and provide semi-normal diets by going without food themselves. However, research by the University of Michigan has found that despite parents’ and caregivers’ best efforts, many children still worry about not having enough food and about their parents’ well-being, and express embarrassment and sadness about not having enough food.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy examines the plight of adolscents and young adults: “The coronavirus pandemic emerged in the context of deep inequities, widening long-standing chasms across income, race, and ethnicity…  Even before the pandemic, children and young adults had the highest poverty rates of all age groups. Young adults face far higher rates of unemployment than any other age group. Some also face massive student loan debt and few jobs prospects. Prior to the coronavirus, the economy was already leaving out young adults. Young people accounted for approximately 25 percent of jobs paying low wages, nearly half of all minimum-wage earners, and a disproportionate share of the unemployed. Between January and May, the unemployment rate jumped from 13 percent to 30 percent for teens, age 16-19, and from 7.6 to 23.2 percent for young adults, age 20-24. Young people of color are overburdened with structural and systemic factors that create barriers to work. These include mass incarceration and the implicit biases in the criminal justice system; racism and discrimination; segregation and isolation; policy and investment failures in the K-12 and postsecondary systems; and major gaps in access to and investment in crucial supports for work, including child care, health, and behavioral health. This disruption in their education and work experience comes when young adults are just beginning their careers, which can have lifelong implications for earnings.”

What does all this data mean?  Most of us are quickly overwhelmed when we try to grasp the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic is blocking opportunity for our nation’s poorest young people. Last week, however, the Washington Post‘s Heather Long and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel opened one window through which we can look into the isolated, private struggles of students who can’t make opportunity work for them this autumn. The reporters begin: “In August, Paige McConnell became the first in her family to go to college—and the first to drop out.  McConnell, 18, could not make online classes work. She doesn’t have WiFi at her rural home in Crossville, Tenn. The local library turned her away, not wanting anyone sitting around during the pandemic. She spent hours in a McDonald’s parking lot using the fast-food chain’s Internet, but she kept getting kicked off her college’s virtual classes because the network wasn’t ‘safe.’ Two weeks after starting at Roane State Community College, she gave up.”

The reporters describe how the president of a Pennsylvania community college came to recognize what his school would have to do to make virtual learning work: “When he saw students huddled outside a Sheetz convenience store trying to do their virtual classes on the store’s WiFi network, John J. ‘Ski” Sgielski, president of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC)…  realized just how much help his school would have to provide low-income students if they were to make it through the fall semester. Like many schools, HACC is predominantly holding virtual classes this fall. Sygielski’s team has given out hundreds of computers to needy students and ‘close to 400’ hotspots, but he fears too many students will just give up on higher education as they see family members getting sick with COVID-19, losing jobs and struggling to eat.”

The reporters describe college president Sgielski’s dilemma not just from the point of view of struggling students, but also in terms of the college’s enrollment figures: “Enrollment is down 13 percent at HACC this fall, though enrollment is still underway because some classes don’t start until later this month.  Black enrollment is down 17 percent, and Hispanic enrollment is down almost 19 percent.  It’s a similar story at many other flagship community and public colleges.  Fall enrollment at Miami Dade College is down 17.5 percent so far, with a 16 percent decline among Hispanic students and a 20 percent decline among Black students. Northern Virginia Community College and the City University of New York are down about 4 percent each this fall, with early data indicating a steep decline for Black students at Northern Virginia Community College.”

The reporters add: “The drop-off in college enrollment is unusual and particular to this pandemic, as college enrollment during the Great Recession grew. Typically, enrollment jumps during economic downturns when jobs are scarce and people look to retrain. Yet, the opposite is happening now.  Students who are the first in their families to pursue college degrees don’t tend to take ‘gap years’ to travel and intern. When low-income students stop attending school, they rarely return, diminishing their job and wage prospects for the rest of their lives. Only 13 percent of college dropouts ever return, a National Student Clearinghouse report last year found, and even fewer graduate. ‘The ultimate fear is this could be a lost generation of low-income students,’ said Bill DeBaun, the National College Attainment Network’s (NCAN) data director.”

One challenge during the pandemic is everyone’s isolation. Locked up at home, we are less likely to  encounter the students parked in public library or fast food restaurant parking lots to take advantage of the WiFi. And families who are hungry or behind in rent and families whose health insurance evaporated when the primary bread winner lost a job are coping with these stresses quietly inside their homes.  The big reports by Washington think tanks and advocacy groups have, however, documented growing suffering among America’s poorest families. Why, in the richest nation in the world, is nobody really doing anything about it? Clearly the Trump administration and the Senate Republican leadership, which have blocked allocation of federal dollars through a second COVID-19 relief bill can be blamed, as can the paralyzing politics of a contentious election season.

Last spring, some people said that COVID-19 would shine a bright light on long standing inequality and we’d have to do something.  I wish I saw growing public will to ameliorate the struggles of America’s poorest children and young adults.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...