The COVID-19 Pandemic: Impact on Families

with Marjorie Sims of Ascend at the Aspen Institute

COVID-19 has imposed additional stress on families, including impacts to employment and childcare. Now, emerging research reveals an increase in mental health concerns among families.

Marjorie Sims, Managing Director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, offers insight into policies and practices to unlock prosperity for families.

Posted on:

February 26, 2021

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: The COVID-19 pandemic is shifting the landscape of everyday life, putting parents out of work or forcing them to work from home, in some cases. And it's also changing the face of education for students. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. COVID-19 has added a lot of stressors to families, especially families with children; and mental health has become a major concern. Joining me to talk about all of this is Marjorie Sims. She is the managing director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute. Marjorie, thanks for being here.

Sims: Thank you so much for having me.

Anderson: It has been some time since we've had COVID-19 here in the United States. I know you guys have been watching the trends since it emerged. What are some of the things that you're seeing that this pandemic is doing to families? You've conducted surveys that look at this. What are you finding?

Sims: Right. Parents are feeling very overwhelmed. They're stressed, they're frustrated, and they're very worried about their families. What we know is that the pandemic has created an enormous disruption for families and it's been long-term and long-standing. And the parents that we've spoken with have seen their responsibilities really increase over the pandemic. An African American father that was in one of our focus groups actually said that his responsibilities now include being the coach, being the doctor, being the psychiatrist, being the nurse. All of these responsibilities that, in normal times, are shared by other professional adults in children's lives now rest on the shoulders of parents.

Anderson: So it's not getting any easier and it sort of begs the question, "What are policymakers and businesses doing to help support these families?" What are you hearing?

Sims: Yeah. Policymakers and employers have a real critical role to play in all of this and we're seeing some of that actually play out now, in the conversations at all levels of government and in communities. Listening to parents and workers is really important and making certain that there's collaboration towards these solutions that really support the entire family. What we know is that there are policies that are out there across the country. Some of the solutions that we highlighted in a recent report, our "Principles and Innovations" report, really illuminate the importance of expanding access to paid leave policies, expanding access to child care services, and then, most importantly, making certain that families have access, in their communities, to mental health supports. It's a real critical component that there's a lot of discussion about these days.

Anderson: Access to mental health support's incredibly important, especially for these families, and I'm wondering specifically about the parents. What have they been saying in the shift of the state of their mental health and are they able to access these points of assistance?

Sims: What's been interesting is that the stigma around mental health services has been reducing, and that happened before the pandemic. But, of course, given all of the stressors, parents really see the importance of accessing these services in their communities and they're frustrated that they're not available. They recognize that their mental health and their children's mental health is a priority for them. And what we've learned is, in our focus groups and in our polling, is that voters and parents overwhelmingly support more programs that provide mental health services for families and communities.

Anderson: When it comes to supports, I know one of the things that Ascend does a lot of messaging around is this whole idea of prosperity investments. What are those and what's the sort of return on investment that you get to families, to businesses, to communities, and to society, in general?

Sims: Family prosperity is truly not a pipe dream. Working together, we can all accomplish this. Dr. James Heckman, who's a Nobel laureate, has done research, over decades, demonstrating that, when you invest in young families with young children, invest in early care and education that's of high quality, and then also support the parents at the same time, society has up to a 17% return on investment. Those investments are truly ways in which we can all achieve family prosperity. There's an amazing program called Springboard to Opportunities in Jackson, Mississippi, and what they've done is listen to the voices of moms in their community to understand how they could achieve family stability. These moms, on average, were earning $12,000 a year. And what the moms decided is that, if they could have a guaranteed additional $1,000 a month for a year -- the program was designed by the moms -- they would be able to put their families on sure footing. And what was learned by Springboard to Opportunities is that the moms were able to create, you know, emergency savings for themselves. They were able to purchase, you know, needed school supplies for their kids, and they were able to also access services for their own mental health care. And this really also afforded the moms a level of dignity that we all need, that we all deserve in America today. So we're really excited about, you know, these prosperity investments that are across the country. We just need to scale them up so more families have, you know, access to them and policymakers and employers are at the front lines of trying to help this really be accomplished for all families.

Anderson: So impactful. Marjorie, if people want to find out more about the work of Ascend, where should they go? What's the website?

Sims: Thank you. People can reach Ascend by going to... And you can also download our reports, the "Family Prosperity" report, as well as reach us on Twitter and Facebook.

Anderson: Marjorie Sims, managing director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, thank you so much for your time.

Sims: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, you can always log on to... I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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