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April 20, 2020

Financial hardships abound amid the COVID-19 crisis – but it's important to remember the most vulnerable

The nonprofit ParentChild+ shifts its model to better support low-income families

Opinion Nonprofits
Nonprofit ParentChild+ Coronavirus Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Low-income families with young children are particularly vulnerable to the financial hardships of the COVID-19 crisis. In response, the nonprofit ParentChild+ has rapidly adjusted its model to support Philadelphia families in a variety of critical and creative ways.

Parents during the COVID-19 crisis are exhausted. They are struggling to stay safe and work essential jobs, while finding care for their children. They are struggling to maintain normalcy while working from home and juggling child care, home schooling and Zoom circle time. The burnout is real and we have weeks, if not months, more to go.

What we don’t see, however, is what can’t be streamed online, shared on Instagram TV, or emailed and documented with a smartphone. It is the reality of low-income families with young children who are not yet in school, whose lives are being much more substantially affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.

From the construction workers to the daycare providers and nail technicians who are part of the 1.3 million in Pennsylvania who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and the farmworkers, nursing assistants and Instacart shoppers who have been declared essential, but are still earning only minimum wage, many are part of the 10.7 million nationwide who are not eligible for unemployment or the cash payments included in Congress’s $2 trillion relief package — even if they have been paying taxes.

They are worried about meeting their family’s basic needs. Where will they get next week's food, and what will they do after their last pack of diapers runs out? And the fears of those in the immigrant community are even more significant, with parents avoiding medical help, food pantries, meals for their children, in fear of any possible interaction with immigration enforcement. The COVID-19 crisis has made families isolated by poverty, race or immigration status more isolated than ever.

In response, ParentChild+ has rapidly adjusted its model to support Philadelphia families in a variety of critical and creative ways: From setting up contactless home deliveries for food, diapers and art activities, to finding emergency grants to fund basic needs such as food and rent, as well as technology to access our program and others online, early learning specialists are stepping up to support local families in need.

ParentChild+ has pivoted its face-to-face, in-person, school readiness program to focus on virtual visits. The need for these virtual visits goes well beyond any direct connection to school success: it is a bridge to the world. At ParentChild+, we work with over 8,000 families with young children across the U.S. — 331 of whom reside here in Philadelphia; at least 20% lack a device or the data plan/WiFi to access the internet, and we expect that number to drastically increase as coronavirus layoffs continue to surge. 

Our families often rely on their community connections — school, their ParentChild+ early learning specialist, their neighborhoods — for access to information. Our early learning specialists, who visit families in their homes twice a week over a two-year period, deliver culturally relevant books and educational toys to support parents as their children’s first teachers. They also help families navigate pre-kindergarten registration, community resources, food, housing, health care and finding quality child care. For isolated families, our staff are reliable access points for programming and information.

While it is critical that we work to support families’ most basic needs, like food and housing, during this pandemic, we must also understand how essential access to technology and the internet is. In Philadelphia today, 20% of families lack internet access, consistent with ParentChild+’s recent findings. Libraries and schools, the very places where many families could borrow a device, access the internet or read books they might not have at home, are closed.

These past several weeks, our early learning specialists have reported that so many of the families we work with are worried about having enough food, enough diapers, enough cleaning supplies to get through the week, the month. They are isolated and scared. They are worried about their children and trying under such oppressive circumstances to continue reading, talking, playing, soothing and reassuring. And in that, they are succeeding, sharing wonderful pictures and videos of their virtual visits, their own playing and reading. Virtual visits have connected families to vital resources, and connecting families to joy as well, with online book readings in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese, a voice of comfort in these extremely vulnerable times.

But we can’t do it alone. Tech companies can donate devices, government leaders can move to make WiFi more available to communities that need it most, and everyone can get policy updates from Zero to Three or CLASP on the early childhood issues arising in this crisis to advocate for what’s needed. Surely, donations to organizations that support low-income families are not far from anyone’s mind, either. And protecting and advocating for those essential workers who risk their health every day, and supporting those who have been laid off in the cleaning, landscaping, restaurant and other service industries can go a long way — after all, many of these workers are the parents of the families who have been impacted the most.

Many families will need much more support and for a long time. Our low-income and communities of color are being hit the hardest by both the disease itself and the devastating economic impact. For many privileged families in America, this situation will be temporary. Though no one knows how long the emergency will last, or if and when it will spike again, there’s hope that social distancing will end, and normalcy will resume. But the ripple effects of COVID-19 will last much longer than the virus for low-income families with young children.

As many of us social-distancing at home think about how we are getting through our days, we must remember the people who are disproportionately employed in industries undergoing mass layoffs, as well as high-risk jobs that keep our society running, who do not have a safety net. We need to think about their families and their young children and understand that their reality and their struggles are much different than ours. We need to care for them—as they have, and are, caring for us.

Sarah Walzer is the CEO of ParentChild+, a national nonprofit that works with young families furthest from opportunity in Philadelphia to prepare their children for school and life success through home visits.