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Three Key Takeaways: The Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Pre-Existing Environmental Stressors for Youth

By Stoneleigh Foundation | May 30, 2020

Just as our public systems are straining to handle the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, so too are many of the young people, families, and communities that our systems serve. Those coping with community and domestic violence, substandard or insecure housing, and an inability to access educational opportunities or healthcare have seen these existing challenges significantly worsen in the past two months. Even as systems try to adapt the way they reach and serve young people and families, the nature, severity, and presentation of these problems have changed as well.

On May 14, the Stoneleigh Foundation hosted a virtual convening featuring three of our Stoneleigh Fellows and moderated by Visiting Fellow and former Annie E. Casey Foundation CEO Patrick McCarthy. The panelists shared their preliminary observations on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on pre-existing environmental stressors for youth.

Stoneleigh Fellow Ruth Abaya reflected on Philadelphia’s intersecting public health crises of COVID-19 and gun violence and the ways in which they have exacerbated one another. Abigail Gray discussed how the pandemic has underscored the importance of elevating social and emotional learning and a positive educational climate as core components of students’ academic experience. Vincent Reina described how the pandemic, against the backdrop of a national housing affordability crisis, has intensified the housing precarity of so many families.

Over the course of the conversation, three key takeaways emerged for practitioners, policymakers and philanthropy interested in how we might prepare for a new normal post-pandemic:

  • Layers of disadvantage can be deadly. As Ruth Abaya observed during the convening, overlapping layers of disadvantage—such as deep poverty, racism, unabated gun violence, housing insecurity rooted in a history of redlining, chronic disease, and other traumatic experiences—have been devastating for communities in Philadelphia. Compounding these pre-existing social and environmental stressors is the added burden of COVID-19, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color and low-income communities in terms of both infections and mortality. One critical lesson of the pandemic is that society’s shocks are felt most acutely by those who already bear the burden of generational disinvestment and disparity.
  • Community connections and social safety nets are critical. Particularly during this period of physical distancing, social isolation, and economic insecurity, investing in our communities’ core resources and connective tissue is vital. The School District of Philadelphia, for example, is endeavoring to find ways to keep students engaged in their school communities, not only through academic instruction but also via expanded social and emotional supports for youth, caregivers, and teachers. Fostering a safe and supportive educational environment is an essential part of preventing future student drop-out, justice-system involvement, and other negative outcomes. Similarly, safe and stable housing is a crucial factor in the well-being of youth and families. Unfortunately, the national affordability crisis combined with a deeply inadequate federal housing safety net has often rendered cities and municipalities ill-equipped to deal with this challenge. Philadelphia recently launched the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is designed to help families who have lost income due to the pandemic. Measuring the impact of this pilot program on a range of social outcomes can help build an evidence base for future housing policy decision-making. These kinds of investments—while implemented as part of the City’s crisis response—can inform and influence broader structural reforms post-pandemic.
  • Short-term relief and recovery efforts must not eclipse the hard work of systemic reform. As we emerge and rebuild from this crisis, it may be tempting to focus exclusively on the urgent, highly visible consequences of COVID-19. However, the pandemic has also laid bare the underlying, structural disparities that long pre-dated the current crisis. These entrenched challenges—such as community violence, housing insecurity, educational inequity, poverty, and racial inequality—may seem too big to tackle, particularly as we look ahead to increased financial strain within families, diminished public budgets, and reduced community-based resources. However, if we defer longer-term, systemic reforms, we will inevitably intensify the next crisis we face.

We hope that these lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic will resonate with leaders from government, advocacy, philanthropy, social services, and community long after the immediate crisis has passed. We will need to keep them front of mind as we work collaboratively to tackle structural barriers and transform our youth- and family-serving systems of care.

View the webinar recording: