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Professor Examines Pandemic’s Mental Health and Income Toll on Children and Families

Georgetown professor Rebecca Ryan says the COVID-19 pandemic has caused dramatic increases in income loss and food insecurity for over 200 low-income families living in rural Pennsylvania that she has been following as part of a Child Development and Social Policy (CDSP) Lab’s effort to quantify the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s health in the United States.

“When the pandemic hit and schools were closed last March, families in our ongoing study of a local food assistance program experienced an immediate spike in food insecurity as well as parent and child mental health problems,” says Ryan, a Provost’s Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology. “Even though we are only studying one community in one state, our findings speak to the implications of COVID-19 on the many low-income, under-resourced communities struggling amid this unprecedented pandemic.” 

Trouble Using Food Assistance 

Ryan and her team at the CDSP Lab began sending families in rural Pennsylvania daily text messages in January 2020 asking about their food insecurity and family well-being. When the pandemic hit, the professor was able to track how the pandemic impacted households in real-time. 

“The pandemic seriously curtailed families’ ability to access sources of food assistance they overwhelmingly depend on,” Ryan says. “Not surprisingly, this led to an increase in families’ concerns about and experiences of food insecurity after schools closed.”

Most of the children in the study receive free school lunch and breakfast through programs such as National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs and/or have access to food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Food Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). All families in the study also receive weekly food packs at their child’s elementary school from the Power Packs Project, a school-based weekend food bag program the CDSP Lab is evaluating.

After schools closed nationwide, the majority of families had trouble accessing the sources of food assistance they depend on to feed their families, including both school meals and Power Packs. Specifically, rates of Power Packs pick-up plummeted after schools closed and parents who received federal food assistance reported trouble utilizing SNAP and WIC. 

“Of the 65% of our families who receive SNAP benefits, the vast majority reported having some or a lot of trouble using those benefits because of the pandemic,” Ryan says.  

As families struggled to access Power Packs and federal food assistance, many took advantage of “Grab and Go” meals provided by the schools during the shutdown. These meals serve to replace the free or reduced-priced meals children typically received at school each day. Most parents took advantage of Grab and Go meals at least once and nearly half did so every week.  

Mental Health Impact

“When schools closed and a stay-at-home order was issued in Pennsylvania, families suddenly and unexpectedly lost access to food assistance they depended on and many likely experienced a loss or reduction in income, all while managing children and their education from home,” says Ryan. “It is not surprising that parents reported increases in depression and anxiety, and that children experienced greater sadness and dysregulation as a result.” 

In the period following the closure of schools in March, Ryan’s team found that there has been a 9 percentage point increase in parents’ worry about running out of food. Likewise, parents reported a 6 percentage point increase in eating less than they should just after schools closed.

The CDSP Lab also found that parents’ mental health declined sharply after schools closed and there was an increase in parental anger and irritation at children. 

Reports from Ryan’s research also showed increases in children’s uncooperative behavior, as reported by parents, that remained elevated through June.  Likewise, children’s sadness and worry also saw a sudden increase after school closures that remained elevated through June. 

Plans for the Future 

Ryan and her team will continue to monitor these families with new daily diaries in the winter and spring of 2021 to capture how the ongoing pandemic – with ongoing school closures and historic levels of unemployment – are impacting families’ food insecurity and well-being. 

The professor says that her team will also ask families about their employment and what public and private sources of support they are using each month. 

“This will enable us to learn not only about how families are faring, but what resources they are using to manage in this difficult time,” she explains.  

-by Shelby Roller (G’19)

Faculty Research