Many people are justifiably concerned about the impact of COVID-19, not only on health but on the economy:
- Some people suggest that suicide rates will increase if we do not put people back to work immediately.
- They claim that more children in the U.S. will experience neglect and starvation.
- They demand we act today to reopen the economy or hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens will die—more than predicted from Coronavirus.
- They also claim that more small businesses closing will destroy our economy, feeding the cycle of suicide and poverty.
These are serious and emotional issues. I’m thrilled to see people show concern for these matters. As a grant writer and non-profit program creator, I have followed these statistics over the past twenty years–in Ohio, the U.S., and globally–looking for ways to make a positive impact. This debate gave me an excuse to jump into the data to analyze these claims and see if the evidence supports them.
There is good news, bad news, and mixed news when it comes to the impact of Coronavirus on poverty.
Good news: Those at the top of the U.S. economy are still flourishing.
Before this crisis, we had 50-year record levels of employment. Officially 85% of Americans seeking work are still employed at this point. Over half of those 15% still eligible to work will return by the end of 2020.
But even at our employment peak, we haven’t been able to tackle some our biggest problems: suicide, childhood neglect and poverty, and the failure of small businesses. Why?
We’ll start with the issue closest to my heart: suicide. I think the easiest-to-understand source for suicide statistics is www.afsp.org. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention can help you get involved in addressing this growing problem.
It is important to know that suicide is not linked to general growth in the U.S. economy. Since 2001, suicide rates have continued to climb year after year (source: National Institutes of Health). Suicide rates rose during the post-911 and 2008 recessions. Suicide deaths also increased in times of low unemployment, and stock market highs.
Why the continued increase?
I know that every individual’s story is unique. Unemployment or poverty can be a motivation for suicide.
But in general, we do not see fewer suicides when more people have jobs and money. The biggest cause we know so far: untreated mental illness. Suicide deaths are highest among middle-aged white men. They are the group least likely to seek treatment for mental illness, and most likely to use a firearm.
White men: get help!
CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT
The great news is that violent child abuse has decreased over the past 25 years!
Unfortunately, rates of neglect have seen little change. Neglect currently accounts for 75% of child maltreatment. Neglect happens when caregivers do not provide necessities for children such as shelter, diapers, clean clothing, age-appropriate food, and access to health care or education.
70% of all child victims are younger than three years old.
Just like the suicide statistics, neglect persists as a problem in our country whether the economy overall is doing well or poorly. 78% of perpetrators are parents, and another 10% are partners or other relatives.
Why? At first glance, the biggest reason for neglect seems to be childhood poverty.
CHILDHOOD POVERTY TO BLAME?
Despite many economic gains in the U.S. economy, we still have a permanent underclass of families in poverty. Before the crisis, in Ohio, 20% of children (that is one in five school age kids), were living in poverty. Poverty here means a family of three earns less than $25,000 per year.
But are all children in poverty at a higher risk for neglect?
Though at first glance neglect could be linked to unemployment, it is more strongly linked to low wages, and high rates of divorce and separation. A single parent working a minimum wage job has difficulty supporting a family with today’s cost of living.
Conflict between separated parents increases the likelihood that kids—especially the youngest—will not get the supervision and care they need to thrive. We see the highest rates of neglect in populations with the lowest marriage rates and highest housing instability.
Stable families with stable housing are better equipped to care for children, regardless of income.
THE POST-CORONA ECONOMY
Finally, will massive closures of small businesses devastate our economy and send more people into poverty?
Adjusting for sole proprietors, Georgia McIntyre’s April 2020 stats at Fundera.com explains that 70% of businesses with employees close within 10 years. As a two-time small-business-owner myself, I see the root of this problem as our inability to compete in an economy that rewards selling cheap products fast.
There is a cancer lurking in our system that allows small businesses to collapse under the weight of a single crisis, personal or global.
We are seeing closures happening more quickly than normal, like a sped-up time-lapse of our general economic cycle. But most small businesses are already fragile, short-lived creations.
The mixed news is that overall, the economy seems to treat small businesses like flies on an elephant. The death of one, hundreds, or even thousands won’t stop progress.
COVID-19 is showing us the deep cracks in our economy where people and businesses fall through.
But the stay-at-home orders have not caused these problems.
If we try to keep businesses open, while exposing the workers or small business owners to prolonged illness or death, then both the people and businesses could die. If more humans survive, then many businesses will close, but the people will be alive to rebuild.
I hope these statistics reassure you that lifting the stay-at-home orders sooner will likely not significantly lower U.S. or Ohio statistics on rates of suicide, child neglect and poverty.
Why? Because growth in the general U.S. economy has not improved these stubborn issues for twenty years. Here in Ohio, some of the main causes for suicide, childhood neglect and poverty are:
- untreated mental illness,
- family and housing instability, and
- persistent low wages.
I’m glad to see so many people show concern for these issues recently. The organizations cited above would absolutely welcome your support in tackling these tragic and terrible problems.
So let’s continue to keep our priorities in order.
According to the Book of Genesis, God did not create a business in His own image and say, “it is good.” To quote the U.S. Catholic Bishops in Economic Justice for All (1986): “The economy should serve people, not the other way around.”
Sadly, Coronavirus is going to devastate lives and destroy economies. We cannot and should not ignore that suffering.
But we also should not believe that our poorest children will survive and thrive if small businesses stay open, if unemployment levels are low, or if the stock market is doing well. Coronavirus or no, it is sadly just not true. Other actions need to be taken. Now, let’s go do it!