New Study Estimates Number of Children Orphaned by COVID-19 in U.S.

The term “orphan” is rarely used in relation to children in the US today.  But last week, the journal Pediatrics released a pre-publication paper estimating the number of children orphaned by COVID-19 and COVID-related factors in the U.S.

The paper, “COVID-19-Associated Orphanhood and Caregiver Death in the United States,” projects that from April 2020 through June 2021:

  • 120,630 children lost at least one primary caregiver.
  • 22,007 children lost at least one secondary caregiver.

The paper’s primary author is Dr. Susan Hillis, who’s been part of the CAFO community for more than a decade.  Another paper that Dr. Hillis co-wrote earlier this year estimated the total number of children orphaned by COVID globally.

Hillis’ earlier paper found dramatic differences in rates of orphanhood between countries worldwide.  For example, at the time of the study, only 1 in every 1,666 children in England and Wales had lost a parent or primary caregiver, while that number was 1 in 667 for the United States, 1 in 286 for Mexico, 1 in 196 for South Africa, and 1 in every 98 children in Peru.   Differences in the development levels of countries, including their health systems and economic situations, no doubt played a part in these shockingly different levels of orphanhood.  But the causes of disparity defied easy explanation, with some of the most remarkable differences visible between countries that one might expect to have similar outcomes.  For example, Columbia’s orphanhood rate was less than a quarter that of neighboring Peru, and Zimbabwe’s was less than a tenth of neighboring South Africa.

The new U.S.-focused research finds dramatic disparities in COVID’s impact as well, revealing major differences between racial/ethnic communities within the U.S.  While 1 in 753 white children and 1 in 682 Asian children lost a primary caregiver, that number was 1 in 412 for Hispanic children, 1 in 310 for black children, and 1 in 168 for American Indian children.  Among other consequences, this widely-differing impact is likely to increase further the already-disparate representation of children of color in the U.S. foster system.

All of these numbers are reasons to grieve.

All of these numbers are reasons to grieve — from every single child who has lost a parent to the gaping differences between distinct groups and nations.

What underlies the sharply-differing rates of orphanhood within the US?  This question was largely beyond the scope of the Pediatrics paper.  No doubt, a wide variety of factors play a part.  Those suggested — though not explored — by the paper include differences between communities in averages of socio-economic situation… access to high-quality health services… personal health practices… age of childbearing… co-morbidities (i.e. underlying conditions that correlate with COVID-19 severity and death), such as obesity and diabetes… percentages of children being cared for by grandparents… and other factors.

Data reported in the study does point to one factor that appears to have contributed substantially in some cases:  differences in fertility rates.  When the average number of children born to parents in a particular community is higher, then each parent lost leaves (on average) a larger number of children orphaned.  For example, it appears that more than 30% of the disparity in the orphanhood rates of Hispanic and non-Hispanic white communities is driven by this factor – with respective female fertility rates of 2.34 and 1.77 children per woman, respectively.

It is worth mentioning the paper was not able to account for one particularly important demographic reality: the rapidly-growing portion of American children classified as multiracial.  By necessity, the paper’s data assumed that all children were of the same race as their deceased parent.  But the 2020 Census revealed that more than 15 percent of children in the U.S. are multiracial, up from only 5.6 percent just ten years prior.  Incorporating this reality in the study would almost certainly have notably impacted projections related to the race(s) of orphaned children.

Certainly, every American has been impacted by COVID-19 and its ripple effects.  But in any historical moment, each and every child who loses a parent will faces special burdens and struggles, from immediate grief … to loss of provision and care …. to a host of other consequences that can impact a child for a lifetime.

As an immense range of studies confirm, children who’ve lost their parents consistently stand among the most vulnerable individuals in their society.  Even when a surviving parent or relative is able to care for an orphaned girl or boy, the child faces a dramatically higher statistically likelihood of virtually every ill – from exploitation to poverty to mental illness to homelessness.

This tragic reality reminds us why Scripture emphasizes so often the call to provide special protection and care for orphans:  not only those who’ve lost both parents, but also those who’ve lost one parent — often referred to in the Bible as “the fatherless.”

The sobering reality of more than 100,000 children newly-orphaned in the United States comes with a call to God’s people to step up – as good neighbors and support systems for single moms and dads… as mentors and friends for grieving kids… as foster, adoptive, and kinship families… and much more.

The Pediatrics’ paper confirms something we all knew deep down already:  this is a time of great need and a time of special opportunity to step for vulnerable children.