Financial help eased pandemic stresses, UO study says

Lower-income families have had a tougher time during the COVID-19 pandemic. But direct financial support eases parents’ stress, and by extension improves kids’ well-being.

That’s the bottom line from the ongoing RAPID-EC study led by UO psychologist Philip Fisher and his colleagues. It’s evidence that government programs to support families, such as the expanded federal child tax credit, are having a positive effect. The team summarized key findings in an October report for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

“When families are struggling to pay their bills, that stress is directly related to the emotional well-being of everyone in their household,” said RAPID-EC project manager Cristi Carman. “And when that stress is chronic and intense, it can have long-term impacts on child development.”

When the pandemic hit the United States in early 2020, Fisher and his team began surveying families with kids under age 5. Their online questionnaire asks about everything from child care to finances to food security, tracking changes in families’ emotional and financial health as the pandemic progresses. It’s a real-time window of the effects of long-term adversity.

The pandemic has exacerbated inequities that were already present, Fisher’s team found. More than one in four families have consistently reported difficulty meeting their basic needs over the course of the pandemic. Parents experiencing financial hardship were more likely to report emotional distress, which in turn increased their kids’ distress.

Those impacts disproportionately fell on Black and Latinx families, as well as single-parent families and families who have a child with a disability, the survey showed.

But giving people resources to help meet their basic needs mitigated those effects. Financial hardship decreased after families received stimulus checks and after the child tax credit expanded to monthly payments.

Parents reported that the influx of cash helped them pay bills and buy essentials, reducing their stress and freeing up more emotional resources to care for and support their children.