Tag Archives: The Children’s Partnership

A Conversation With Children’s Advocate Mayra Alvarez

School lunch programs, which fed nearly half of American’s schoolchildren before the Coronavirus, have turned into a lifeline for families hit by unemployment and rising food prices during the pandemic.

Many of those programs are now going broke, and their very existence over the next decade depends on the population numbers being gathered by the U.S. Census in communities that are considered “hard to count,”  says Mayra E. Alvarez, President of The Children’s Partnership, a nonprofit which advocates for underserved children.

When asked about the impact of the U.S. Census, which is conducted every ten years and has been delayed and disrupted (but NOT canceled) by the pandemic, Alvarez mentions this program first, although it’s hardly the only one that would be affected if there is a severe undercount of children and low income families.

In the past three months, school lunch programs have lost at least $1 billion during lockdowns and school closures that eliminated the revenue from families who were able to pay for the meals.

At the same time, costs have outstripped federal reimbursements for the emergency meals. Relief bills passed by Congress have helped, but the long-term survival of the programs depend on data from the 2020 Census.

For populations concerned with survival, filling out or responding to the 2020 Census may seem a distant priority.

But nothing is more important for vulnerable families than an accurate count, says Alvarez.

For starters, the biggest, most impactful federal and state programs that serve the health and well-being of children and families depend on formulas driven by census data.

The more people that are counted, particularly in those communities that need a variety of programs, the more money is allocated to serve them.

“We can point to Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), two fundamental programs for health care, which are partly based on census numbers,” said Alvarez.

“The programs that rely on census data are the ones the majority of people rely one, like Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance”.

Medicaid, for example, is “part of a formula that distributes money to states, based on population and income; the states put money in and the federal government matches it.”

Experts estimate that the federal government provides between $1,700 and $2,000 for each person counted in the census.

For a minimum wage earner who’s a single mother of two, being counted or not counted in the census “can make a whole world of difference,” Alvarez says.

“If there is no adequate reflection of people like her in the census data, she may not be able to qualify for food stamps or enroll her children in child care because there won’t be enough slots”, Alvarez explains.

”She may also lose out on health coverage for her children, not find space in a neighborhood school and have to bus her children to another school. She might have to go farther away to find a hospital if the child gets sick because the hospital wasn’t built in her community since the population count did not reflect her presence,” she continues.

“This could be a very dire situation if the undercount is severe.”

“It is so much more important to be accurate right now because so many families are struggling,” Alvarez says. “These programs pretty much impact every aspect of their lives”.

Going back to school lunches, Alvarez says, an undercount of children and families could mean more hunger at a time when it’s unclear how soon will schools be able to go back to some kind of “normality”

“If families that have kids that depend on free and reduced lunch are undercounted, there will not be as many resources to make sure they are eating when they go to school”, Alvarez says. “These are kids that may not be able to eat at home or bring money for lunch”.

School Closures Hurt Families and Children

Millions of Americans are experiencing threats to their health and economic security during the pandemic, says Mayra Alvarez, President of The Children’s Partnership, but it’s “especially true for children from immigrant families” who have been severely impacted by the lockdown.

Covid19-related school closures are hurting children who have traditionally relied on the safety net that schools provide.

Schools play a critical role in offering education, physical activity and enrichment activities for children across the country, says Alvarez, but many children from low income and families of color also rely on school meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.

“For many families, schools are a key source of childcare.”

School closures mean months of lost time in classrooms, but they adversely impact vulnerable children who have lost access to low-cost or free school meals, the community of their teachers and classmates, and other benefits built into the educational infrastructure.

Covid-19 is likely to exacerbate the inequities in learning opportunities that have existed for far too long for marginalized children, Alvarez said.

Along with a panel of experts, Alvarez was discussing the pandemic’s effects on minority communities and the implications of going back to work after the lockdown, at a telebriefing organized by Ethnic Media Services on May 1.

What school closures mean

At least 55.1 million students at nearly 124 thousand public and private schools have been impacted as the majority of US States have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the school year said Alvarez.

But, as schools transition to remote learning environments that offer a ‘multitude of distance learning resources’, children from underserved communities may not be able to access web-based academic instruction and enrichment activities during the closure.

Many of them will lose months of normal instruction. As a result, children who are already academically behind and underserved will suffer without the support schools offer them and their families, said Alvarez.

It’s an “unprecedented risk to education and wellbeing,” she said, particularly for the most marginalized children who rely on school for education, health, safety and nutrition.

Families are Struggling

Immigrants and their families who are being excluded from federal relief efforts face increasing economic hardships and health risks, Alvarez pointed out.

In a recent survey by the Children’s Partnership and Education Trust West, a poll of 600 parents across California showed that more than half of parents with young children (aged 0-5) were uneasy about personal finances. More than a third were not confident about being able to pay for basic needs like food, housing and healthcare.

The results were ‘not surprising, but deeply disheartening’ said Alvarez. COVID 19 is threatening the physical, mental and emotional health of families

About one in three parents are skipping or reducing meals so their kids don’t go hungry, a number that increases significantly among new parents with a child one to six months old, low income parents, Latinx parents, and families in some Los Angeles counties.

Less than a quarter (18%) of families are currently able to access their doctor through telehealth and nearly 1 in 3 parents have missed health appointments for their child due to Covid19,

Researchers also learned that 72% of families (57% of black, 76% of Latinx) are worried about mental health, and 23% of parents worried about the impact of substance abuse and domestic violence.

Results reveal that young children under five are facing significant mental health risks at an age when their brains are rapidly developing and are most at risk from trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

The coronavirus has been incredibly disruptive, risking the heath and wellbeing of parents and children across California, says Alvarez.

As families struggle with financial and food security, access to health programs and web-based support, their challenges are made worse by existing inequities for low income families and families of color in particular, says Alvarez.

“‘It’s clear from the data that the children whose families are being hit hardest by this crisis are the same children that our systems of education, health and social services have long failed to support. We can and must do better” urged Alvarez

How will children emerge from this crisis?

In California, Governor Gavin Newsome has issued a roadmap for reopening the state, its schools and childcare centers.

Modifications include an early start to the next school year, class sizes cut in half, staggered schedules and expanded childcare facilities. Safety measures feature protocols for protections, physical distancing and limiting the number of students during meal distribution, PE classes or recess.

However, there remain many unknowns, says Alvarez, and a timeline is still unclear.

What is clear is that families and children, especially in marginalized communities, need a level playing field as communities reopen.

How children emerge from this crisis will depend on how they are affected by the choices parents and caregivers make about basic expenses, Alvarez suggested. That means:

  • Parents and caregivers need financial resources, so they don’t have to worry about basic expenses or make choices on what to spend on in this crisis – healthcare, food or housing.
  • Students returning to school need support to address emerging academic, health & psychological needs.
  • People need web-based support and free online resources to access distance learning or virtual storytime, so they don’t fall behind.
  • Families need support to access telehealth and health professionals for their health and wellbeing; It is critical that they get childcare arrangements and parenting support they need.
  • Providing meals for families with food insecurity need (EG: Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer) critical in reaching vulnerable communities.

“Our response to the pandemic must ensure that of children of color, dual language learners, and children from low income families are at forefront of priorities”  says Alvarez, as California and its schools start to think about reopening and rebuilding their communities.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents

Photos by Charlein Gracia on Unsplash