CHARLESTON – 26 percent of West Virginia adults with children in the household said they felt down, depressed, or hopeless in March 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic continued. That’s only one percentage point lower than the 2020 rate, during the peak of the pandemic, according to the 2021 Kids Count Data Book, a 50-state report of recent household data developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that analyzes how Families have evolved between the Great Recession and the COVID-19 Crisis.
Nationally, 22% of adults with children in the household reported feeling down, depressed, or hopeless during the March 2021 pandemic, compared with 23% in 2020. West Virginians’ struggle with the pandemic was fueled by challenges before the Pandemic intensified. In fact, in this year’s data book, which is ranked based on 2019 data, West Virginia ranks 44th in terms of general well-being of children just before the pandemic began. The 44th place remained unchanged compared to the previous year.
This year’s data book shows that almost a decade of progress could be undone by the COVID-19 pandemic if policy makers fail to act boldly to maintain the beginning of a recovery from the coronavirus crisis. Even before the pandemic, thousands of children in West Virginia were raised in families who could not meet their most basic needs. In 2019, 70,000 children in West Virginia lived in poverty, 20% of the state’s population.
At the family level, poverty causes stressors such as insecurity about nutrition, housing, income and more. These stressors can also put parents at increased risk of mental health problems and substance abuse, which can lead to child abuse and neglect. In West Virginia, referrals to child protection services approached 42,000 in 2019. That number fell by around 8,600 to 33,400 in 2020. While this sounds seemingly positive, abuse was not reported when children were out of sight of safe adults such as teachers and counselors. We know this because when schools reopened and children were back in sight of teachers, counselors, coaches, and friends, recommendations rose sharply.
“With family isolation, job loss, health risks, virtual school closures and daycare closings, parents and carers have had to reconcile education and care for their children in unprecedented ways. Balancing comes with stress, depression and sometimes abuse, ”said Tricia Kingery, executive director of WV Kids Count, West Virginia’s member of the Kids Count network. “During the summer vacation, parents, neighbors, coaches, and caring adults should watch out for signs of abuse and neglect so they can be the ones children at risk can count on.”
To report child abuse or neglect in West Virginia call 1-800-352-6513.
The data book shows that just returning to pre-pandemic levels of support for children and families would neglect millions of children and would not address persistent racial and ethnic inequalities.
Sixteen indicators that measure four areas – economic well-being, education, health, and family and community context – are used by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in the data book each year to assess child well-being. Kids Count’s annual data and rankings are the most recent information available but do not capture the impact of the past year:
• Economic well-being: In 2019, 70,000 West Virginia children were living in households on incomes below the poverty line. Nationally, West Virginia ranks 40th compared to other states.
• Education: In 2018-19, 9% of West Virginia high school students failed to graduate on time. At the national level, West Virginia ranks third compared to other states.
• Affordable health care: In 2019, 13,000 children had no health insurance. At the national level, West Virginia ranks fourth compared to other states.
• Family and community context: In 2019, 39,000 children lived in areas of high poverty. Nationally, West Virginia ranks 39th compared to other states.
• During the pandemic in 2020, 10% of adults with children in the household lacked health insurance. However, by March 2021, that number had risen to 15%, suggesting job loss and / or the lack of affordable insurance.
• During the 2020 pandemic, 20% of households with children reported having little or no confidence that they would be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment on time. However, by March 2021, that figure had dropped to 15%, reflecting positive momentum.
“West Virginia’s well-being depends on all children and families thriving in a post-pandemic world,” said Kingery. Policy makers can use this moment to invest in programs that offer economic opportunities for parents and equal opportunities for children.
Investing in children, families and communities is a priority to ensure equitable and inclusive recreation. Several suggestions from the Annie E. Casey Foundation have already been implemented in the American Rescue Plan, and other recommendations include:
• Congress should make the expansion of the child tax deduction permanent. The child tax break has long been supported by both parties, so lawmakers should find a common cause and ensure that the biggest fall in child poverty in a year is not followed by an increase.
• State and local governments should give priority to restoring badly affected color communities.
• States should expand income support that helps families look after their children. A permanent extension of unemployment insurance entitlement to contract, gig and other workers and an expansion of state tax credits would benefit parents and children.
• States that have not done so should expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The American Rescue Plan provides incentives for this.
• States should strengthen public schools and pathways to post-secondary education and training.