The pandemic created a tremendous storm of challenges that impacted everyone. Many of us saw how important having a steady job, quality health care, affordable child care, and other support systems were to keeping us on a solid foundation through the waves. Others of us lacked access to these materials for well-being, and as a result, have faced much greater health impacts.
Policies and systems that place barriers for people to access these materials and lead to underinvested neighborhoods especially caused unique challenges for certain populations. Issues like inadequate affordable housing, limited healthy food options, and patchy mental health services have added greater burdens on some families that then impact their ability to provide safe, nurturing relationships and environments for kids.
Here we briefly summarize four issues that have emerged during the pandemic that are putting central Iowa children’s long-term health at risk. By highlighting these issues, we hope to draw greater attention on the work we must do to reinforce families’ well-being so that the impacts of the pandemic don’t last lifelong.
More than ever, the pandemic has shown us how our health is intertwined. When we shore up the ways we support families, we ensure that kids in our community have what they need to be healthy now and we create a better future for us all.
The cost of renting or buying a home has increased faster than local wages, putting affordable housing out of reach for many people. When housing is expensive, it’s harder for families to pay medical bills, eat well, and offer quality care and education, which can impact children’s healthy development.
The pandemic further exacerbated this situation as many people lost their jobs or had to quit for safety or child-care reasons. As people fell behind on paying rent, many were served with eviction notices, even with a moratorium in place to prevent them. Iowa Legal Aid has seen its evictions caseload grow to one-half of all cases from one-quarter prior to the pandemic. With the moratorium now lifted, the organization is continuing to see a spike in people needing support.
Evictions place tremendous stress on families and can disrupt children’s sense of safety and connections to school and the community, which are essential to well-being. Even with funding to help families cover the rent owed and measures to prevent evictions, an increasing number of families are having an eviction notice placed on their record, which can severely limit their ability to find stable housing for years to come.
Housing partners continue to work collaboratively to find creative solutions, like the Justice Center Project, to provide immediate rental assistance, while looking at the long-term need for quality affordable housing options.
Even before the pandemic, people struggled to access enough food, especially healthy food with some grocery stores located miles from underinvested neighborhoods. The economic downturn further exacerbated the number of people experiencing hunger. Food pantries served a record number of unique visitors in mid-2020. An increase in government aid eventually led to a decrease in food pantry use over the past year, but the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) has pointed out that, historically, when government assistance wanes, as it is now, food pantry use will spike again.
Having enough healthy nutrition is especially important for kids during a critical period of growth, development, and learning. For children and adolescents, whose bodies and minds are still under construction, missing meals could have a long-term effect on health and learning. Many organizations working in the emergency food system are seeking innovative solutions to connect organizations that have excess food to those who need it through food rescue operations and to improve options for distributing healthy foods through community fridges, mobile pantries, gardens, and more.
Grief from losing loved ones, a pile up of household stressors, and isolation from family and friends have all contributed to a spike in people experiencing depression and anxiety. Mental health challenges can impact a parent’s capacity to care for their kids, but local pediatricians also have noted a rise in kids expressing serious symptoms of mental illness, especially girls. Nationally, a CDC report showed that during February 21-March 20, 2021, suspected suicide attempt emergency room visits were 50.6% higher among girls aged 12-17 years than during the same period in 2019. The Iowa Poison Control Center noted in February a major increase in 11- to 14-year-old girls attempting suicide.
Iowa’s patchwork children’s mental health system makes it difficult for families to know where to turn to for support and to access the right kind of care for their kids. Reopening schools is providing stability and structure, but many administrators note that students need a greater level of mental health support. Efforts are underway to build social-emotional skills with kids that can help them cope and lay a strong foundation for future mental well-being. Advocates are also continuing to focus on developing a system that includes prevention, early identification, and early intervention services and to expand the mental health workforce in Iowa.
As students missed several weeks at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, then had summer break, followed by virtual and hybrid models of school, the level of learning loss increased dramatically. While schools needed to take steps to ensure safety, not being in school especially created challenges for students who lacked Internet connection, have special needs, live in households with both parents working out of the home, or in families that have language barriers. Learning loss is especially impacting students’ ability to reach the critical milestone of reading at grade level by the end of third grade, a skill necessary to be able to keep up with learning going forward. Falling behind in school increases the likelihood of dropping out and living in poverty—all of which impacts long-term health and well-being.
Schools have been working to implement greater supports to help students catch up over the summer and remain on track and community programs have teamed up to help during out-of-school time.
While we highlight just some of the significant challenges that are putting children’s well-being at stake right now, we also recognize that central Iowa is known for our ability to work collaboratively and creatively to address complex issues. We encourage you to learn more about these challenges and to connect with efforts focused on providing the supports and resources families need to thrive together so that we emerge from the pandemic as a stronger community.
Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.