By: Shannon Jones via Akron Beacon Journal
We’ve woken up to a lot of things since COVID-19 stopped us in our tracks this past spring. We’ve learned just how interconnected we all are and how dependent we are on people whom we don’t always notice. Many of us also have experienced physical and financial vulnerability in a new way.
As important, COVID-19 has laid bare how profoundly inequitable our experiences are. We can’t rationalize away this reality. The data are clear, stark and, frankly, disturbing. The flippant excuse that “life isn’t fair” just doesn’t cut it. The fact is there’s something unquestionably systemic and wrong going on.
Certain groups — families of color, those in the Appalachian region, and those experiencing poverty — have been hit hardest by the pandemic. They have higher COVID-19 infection rates and are dying in larger numbers. They have been more likely to lose their jobs. They’ve been more exposed to the virus because of the kinds of jobs they have (and have bravely continued to do in the face of risk).
Importantly to those of us who think that we’re investing too little in children, we’ve starkly seen how when adults suffer, so do their children. Deprivation and suffering trickle down even when parents do their best to prevent their children from being impacted or going without.
The tragic truth for children in Ohio is that their chance at success too often depends on their race, their family’s socioeconomic status and their ZIP code. Skin color, family income and neighborhood consistently determine whether a child will live to his or her first birthday, get appropriate medical care and start kindergarten on track. These factors even correlate with whether a child learns to read well and goes on to graduate from high school and attend college or get a skill.
This preordination, this indisputable pattern, is wrong. All children deserve a fair shot at being all that they can be and having opportunities that set them up for success in adulthood.
Many advocates argued before COVID-19 that we needed to fix obvious inequities in our health and education systems. That imperative has gotten dramatically more urgent. The policy choices we make as we get to the other side of this health crisis will determine if children who were shortchanged before COVID-19 become even more disadvantaged. We have to make our decisions using an equity lens. Are we prioritizing the needs of those who need the most support? Are we focusing and investing money where it has the most impact? Are we acknowledging that policymakers have a moral duty to try to minimize the unfairness that children experience through no fault of their own?
What am I talking about?
We must ensure young children have access to health care and nutritious food.
We need to provide early interventions, targeting children growing up in low-income communities.
We need to provide high-quality early learning when children’s brains are developing fastest.
We need to have more accessible and affordable child care, so families can take jobs and build happy homes.
We must expand evidence-based home visiting, so we can support families that struggle to know what their child needs or who lacked strong parental role models.
We have to stabilize families so fewer children end up in foster care.
The organization I lead makes these points in more detail — and lays out compelling data behind the recommendations — in our new report, Drafting a New Blueprint for Success. You can read it at GroundworkOhio.org/equity and join with us in advocating for ending deeply rooted disparities.
COVID-19 is ravaging budgets at all levels of government. There are important and competing needs that have to be balanced. But we can’t keep failing families and young children who have been marginalized and left behind for too long.
Life can be fairer for those who are struggling to make a better life for their children, but only if we act in new ways.
Shannon Jones is executive director of Groundwork Ohio, which champions high-quality early learning and healthy development strategies for Ohio’s youngest children.