For children to thrive post pandemic, household income must be addressed, researchers say
The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered many lessons, but one of the main takeaways has been that money pressures can come from out of the blue, and that many aspects of life become immediately more challenging in the face of financial pressure.
Dr Anna Price, a researcher at the Centre for Community Child Health, argues that for children to recover from the impact of COVID-19, and to be part of families who not only survive, but thrive, household income must be addressed.
Financial resources help families nurture children’s health and development, making the most of the valuable window of opportunity presented in early childhood, in terms of shaping lifetime outcomes.
Using data from The Royal Children’s Hospital Child Health Poll – Australia’s only nationally representative repeated cross-sectional survey of families with children during the pandemic – researchers discovered that from June 2020 to July 2021, just over a quarter of families reported job or income loss due to the pandemic; around 1 in 5 families reported low income (at the poverty threshold); and, a third were unable to afford essential items.
In a separate analysis of data from the Melbourne Institute’s the Pulse of the Nation Survey – an ongoing and repeated cross-sectional survey of Australians from June 2020 to September 2021 – researchers found that financial stress has been common and persistent, especially families with young children.
Over the past year, 68 per cent of families with any children younger than five years of age reported financial stress or difficulties making ends meet, compared with 63 per cent of families with only older children, and 60 per cent of child-free families.
Essentially, researchers argue, this means that families have the most financial stress and reduced financial resources during the earliest years – a critical developmental period where the foundations for health and opportunity across the lifespan are laid.
“We need to address family income if we want to ‘build back better’ in our recovery from the pandemic,” Dr Price said.
- Income supplements.
The Australian Government’s historical income supplements introduced to offset the financial instability caused by the public health restrictions appear to have provided an effective buffer for families. While job and income loss increased with ongoing lockdown, this did not translate to increased material deprivation (the inability to pay for essential items like food or rent) or income poverty (low income, $1,000 per week).
This interpretation is supported by modelling demonstrating the substantial reductions in Australia’s poverty levels resulting from the temporary JobKeeper and JobSeeker policies, which were incrementally reduced from September 2020 onwards.
In thinking about who to prioritise, families with children aged birth to five years of age are a good place to start, researchers said.
- Using existing infrastructure to support the financial and social needs of families.
In 2010, the Scottish Government funded a partnership between the National Health Service, local government and the community sector, using their early years workforce to identify and refer families to community financial counsellors.
Since its launch in 2010, this initiative has resulted in over 26,000 referrals and approximately £36.5 million pounds in total financial gain for families of young children.
“The pre-COVID-19 rhetoric was that it was impossible to increase income supplements. COVID-19 has shown us that it is possible and it makes a difference. The payments have illustrated the importance and effectiveness of government actions to protect those likely to experience greater hardship.”
“If anything, the pandemic has shown us that such initiatives are possible,” she said.
COVID-19 has also shown that science and real-time evaluation can be part of policy decisions, she continued, calling on policy makers to “harness this positive change in our political discourse, and carry it forward to our recovery efforts. Potential solutions should be tried and tested, so we know what works now and what to consider for future (local and global) challenges.”
The Centre for Community Child Health is a department of The Royal Children’s Hospital and a research group of Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. For further information please see here.