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Marci Ybarra on Challenges for Latina Mothers Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Marci Ybarra
  • April 02 2024
  • PC140-2024

Marci Ybarra
Marci Ybarra

COVID-19 interrupted life on multiple levels for many people regardless of race, economic class, or citizenship. For Latina mothers who either lacked legal status or were part of a mixed-status household, the pandemic intensified the challenges they faced even before this health and economic crisis. In their paper, “No Calm Before the Storm: Low-Income Latina Immigrant and Citizen Mothers Before and After COVID-19,” Dr. Marci Ybarra and Francia Mendoza Lua share insights gained through interviews with Latina moms in Chicago before and during the pandemic.

Dr. Ybarra is an Associate Professor in the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is an IRP Affiliate. Her research interests include welfare reform, paid family leave, the children of immigrants, and the socioeconomic well-being of low-income families

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Siers-Poisson [00:00:06] Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I’m Judith Siers-Poisson. For this episode, we’re going to be talking with Dr. Marci Ybarra about her recent paper that she coauthored with Frania Mendoza Lua, titled “No Calm Before the Storm: Low-Income Latina Immigrant and Citizen Mothers Before and After COVID-19.” You can find a link to the paper in the program notes for this episode. Dr. Ybarra is an Associate Professor in the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include poverty and inequality, social service delivery, work supports, and family well-being. She’s also an IRP Affiliate. Marci, thanks for joining us today.

Ybarra [00:00:54] Sure. So glad to be here. Thank you.

Siers-Poisson [00:00:56] I’d like to start with getting a sense of what life was like for Latina moms and their families before the pandemic. What was the general work and economic status and their experiences of poverty like?

Ybarra [00:01:10] Yeah. Great question. And our study, which was based in Chicago, with immigrants, including undocumented and citizen Latina moms, it was actually a common story. And by that, I mean, among low-income moms that we talked to were piecing together work some safety net provisions, mainly almost exclusively for their kids and struggling with child care and job hours and things of that nature. Those who were partnered or married, that seemed to be less the case, because that meant that there was another income in the household. But they were the struggles that had been found in many kind of post-welfare reform studies of, you know, moms piecing together work, childcare and resources to make ends meet.

Siers-Poisson [00:02:00] And I want to make sure that our listeners know that these families are pretty complex in a variety of ways. And some of that is that maybe one or both of the parents are undocumented, but the kids are citizens, or maybe one of the parents is a citizen, but the other is not. There are a lot of different configurations.

Ybarra [00:02:24] That’s right. And so in general, the literature refers to mixed-status families, meaning within a family, folks hold or can hold many different immigration statuses.

Siers-Poisson [00:02:36] You mentioned that the study that we’re going to be discussing was in Chicago. Can you give us a little background on how this study got started and and what your goals were when you started it?

Ybarra [00:02:47] Sure. A great question. Originally, myself with my collaborators Angela Garcia and Yanilda Gonzalez had partnered with the City of Chicago, whose city clerk had began a new municipal ID program. You know, there’s probably a few dozen cities now that have their own municipal ID, and Chicago’s was fairly unique in that it wasn’t going to hold the data. Meaning you apply for the card, you have your name and address and gender on the card. And then essentially, as soon as the city prints it off, that data disappears. And the reason for that was lots of advocates said if you keep the data, it is going to be very difficult for immigrants to actually enroll in the program because they’re giving up data and they might feel threatened by that, as well as folks who are like returning citizens, meaning those who are just formerly incarcerated. So lots of different groups might not be amenable to the tracking that comes along with data collection. And so me and my collaborators were really excited about this in terms of, you know, can a municipal ID offset some of the hardships that folks who don’t have ID or may have ID, but they feel like it doesn’t reflect who they are? Can that offset some of the hardships? And so we partnered with the City to essentially evaluate their new municipal I.D. program. And this was in, you know, 2018 to 2019 we were in the field. It became widely available in Chicago in May of 2018. And so as part of that evaluation, we collected 7,500 surveys from folks who were enrolled and gotten a city key card. And then we decided we wanted to talk to the folks we thought might be most impacted by having a municipal ID. And so we also did, almost 200 interviews with folks who had a high school diploma or less, who were Black or Latino, who were LGBTQ identified, non-binary, tran,s folks who were houseless, folks that we thought were the most marginalized, essentially, and interviewed them. And up until 2019, our interviews ended in December of 2019 for that project. Well, then we were talking about a book. And then, of course, the pandemic happened. And so as collaborators, and our interest mainly was in ensuring that marginalized folks had access to resources in a municipality might do that. But we also knew with the pandemic that the folks who were most interested in for the study were going to be the most impacted by things like job losses, and the disease itself. And so we decided very quickly, we’re going to go back into the field and try to re-interview these 200 folks we spoke to before the pandemic, and we were successful in interviewing them again, about 85% of them after the pandemic. So that was the original motivation for the study. It was a municipal ID evaluation.

Siers-Poisson [00:05:42] And this paper that we’re talking about focuses especially on those Latina moms, some citizens, some without documentation. And I want to focus in on them. And you kind of alluded to this, that things were not easy before the pandemic. And certainly the pandemic really increased a lot of those challenges. But can you give us an idea of the most significant factors and policies that had most affected moms like these in the years previous to the pandemic? I’m thinking of the title of your paper being “No Calm Before the Storm.”

Ybarra [00:06:17] Yeah. So, you know, there’s things of interest like work, income, and safety net access, but there’s also other things that shape folks’ lives, especially those who are low income, those who are immigrants, or those who are close to those who are immigrants. And so for our moms, it was a combination of different institutions, both at the local level as well as nationally, that shaped their everyday lives. A few examples include… it wasn’t uncommon for moms to talk about the disparities in quality education in Chicago, and they’re feeling that because they were immigrants or Latino that their children receive worse education because of the areas that they lived in which were poorer. So there is this distrust of education in Chicago because of its inequitable treatment of students. Policing was another big factor, and this was a mixed bag, which isn’t uncommon in this literature, which is moms often articulated, especially the citizen moms, both the need but also the disdain for police in their communities, the need because they felt that they wanted their children to be safe, their homes to be safe. But you know, the annoyance or the disappointment with policing in the way that their communities were treated. It’s a little bit different for the undocumented moms that we spoke with about policing, because what was layered on top of that was the common collaboration between ICE and police. And so it was also this layered-on fear of deportation threat. If you are undocumented and have an interaction with police. And then there was just really common articulation of being treated poorly even among moms who sought safety net benefits. And by that, I mean, if you’re undocumented, you yourself are not eligible for safety net benefits. But in most cases, your citizen children are. So it was kind of these social and political factors that were also shaping their lives in addition to trying to make ends meet.

Siers-Poisson [00:08:25] So, Marci, the pandemic, or the storm, as you refer to it in the title of your paper hits. How do things change for these moms? And you know there is a difference, like you said, for moms in mixed-status households, or perhaps where all are citizens but are low income, maybe lower educational level, and living in poor neighborhoods.

Ybarra [00:08:48] Yeah. No, that that really was where we observed the biggest differences. Citizen moms who are often partnered or married talked about pulling back on work hours, but really as a choice, meaning their partners were still working and that reduction in work hours for them was really about staying home more so that their children didn’t have to go to daycare or anywhere else where they were fearful that they would catch COVID. Also, their own fear about their own health as the caregiver in the family. As in, if I keep exposing myself to outside sources, I’m going to bring home the virus and make my family sick. But they also had access to safety net resources, including government provisions that were provided as part of the pandemic. And so for citizen moms, it wasn’t just I can pull back and work because I want to keep my family safe, but I also have access to these other benefits like stimulus payments and things of that nature. And there’s less of a fear of interacting to go get SNAP or Medicaid or things of that nature. For undocumented moms, there was no federal pandemic provision lifeline for them. Right? And so if their hours were reduced, which was more likely that their hours were cut, they really didn’t have, governmental buffer, so to speak, because they were not eligible, especially for the stimulus payments was a thing that came up, the most. And so in the aftermath, you see a little bit of a divergence in terms of not just fear and worry about things related to immigration, but fewer worry about economic duress during the pandemic because undocumented moms felt abandoned by government in that time where citizen moms were more likely to access resources.

Siers-Poisson [00:10:34] And you said that moms who are undocumented were not eligible for stimulus money. But what about their citizen children? Was there any provision for the kids to get some kind of support?

Ybarra [00:10:48] No, stimulus payments were going to heads of households. And so you got extra money if you had children, but you didn’t qualify if you were undocumented, that included if you were undocumented and married to someone who is a citizen, there is a woman in our sample who’s a Latina citizen who’s married, her husband was undocumented, who expressed a lot of anger about being excluded because her and her husband filed joint taxes, and because they weren’t both citizens, her and her family did not receive those first couple of rounds of stimulus payments.

Siers-Poisson [00:11:27] I want to go back to the topic of education, because you mentioned that that was a recurring theme for the moms before the pandemic, that their children might not have been receiving the same quality education, that someone in a different neighborhood of a different racial background might have. I think all of us saw parents of all economic levels, really struggling when schools closed and kids were home. Then there was an expectation of remote learning. I wonder what that looked like for these moms and not making any assumptions about language ability in English, but I’m guessing that a large percentage of these moms and other parents as well, would have had even larger challenges in trying to support their kids in this remote learning environment.

Ybarra [00:12:15] Yes, that was very true. That’s actually something that didn’t land in the paper that my coauthor, Frania Mendoza Lua,  is writing a dissertation chapter on. So I’ll give you a little bit of a preview of her fantastic work. Yes, moms were challenged, especially undocumented moms, for few reasons. All parents were, right? There is also oftentimes a language barrier. So lots of our interviews were conducted in Spanish. And so there’s a proficiency level that’s needed in order to help school your child during lockdown. There’s a tech proficiency that’s needed that undocumented moms, not all but enough, reported really struggling with. And so in addition to the time demands, you know, being sandwiched between all of these things and then of course, being largely responsible for your child’s home schooling, they were also led to feelings of inadequacy and shame. It also emerged that in families where there were adolescents or young adults, that they were often the siblings, the older siblings were often the ones who stepped in to help. Which raises the question of how did the older siblings fare during the pandemic.

Siers-Poisson [00:13:30] And also, you mentioned that some of the citizen moms were able to reduce their hours to be more available at home. But I’m guessing across the board, a lot of the folks that you were talking with had more of a likelihood of being a frontline worker, or, as we were calling them, essential workers. And so maybe on one hand, it was good that those who needed to work could keep working, but there was a huge added risk to them and their families being in contact with the public, especially before there were any vaccines available.

Ybarra [00:14:05] Yes, it was very common for moms across citizenship statuses to talk about their fear of dying from COVID, and who would take care of their families and their children. And it was especially acute among those who were deemed essential workers, and that they were coming into contact not only on their job, but several expressed public transit, because that’s how they got to work. And so they knew that they were going to be repeatedly exposed. And a good reminder that the timing of this study was February 2020 until that summer. So pre vaccine. And so they were incredibly worried. That was their primary concern that if something happened to them who was going to take care of their family. And if they brought it back to their children or their spouses or loved ones that they just couldn’t they couldn’t deal with that.

Siers-Poisson [00:14:59] There was an eviction moratorium for a large part of the pandemic. But if I’m remembering correctly in your paper, you talked about these Latino families having a much higher risk of not being able to make their rent than the overall population. And I think it would be easy to think like, “oh, well, but there’s a moratorium. You’re not going to get kicked out.” But the meter doesn’t stop running on that rent. So at some point it’s going to be due. What did you hear from the moms about that?

Ybarra [00:15:29] Well, especially the undocumented moms who didn’t have access to government provisions. You know, citizens, moms referred to the stimulus payments and expanded unemployment insurance payments, essentially lifelines that help them keep food on the table and pay their rent and things of that nature. Undocumented moms, of course, didn’t have that. And there was an eviction moratorium and the City of Chicago also had a fairly large rent pot of money that folks could apply to, irrespective of immigration status during this time frame. But much like other major cities, those dollars ran out so much quicker than the city had anticipated. And so we have a couple of moms saying, yes, I thought about applying, but by the time I did, there was no more money left. Things of that nature. So they were really worried not just about I can’t pay my rent this month, but I can’t pay it this month, and I’m not sure how I’m going to pay it in these next few months. So a lot of uncertainty, economic uncertainty among undocumented moms.

Siers-Poisson [00:16:25] We talked earlier about distrust of institutions and how the government may work against them when moms might be looking for help. Given the severity of the crisis that COVID was on so many levels, were there some moms who previously just stayed away from any interaction with institutions and government offices because they were afraid? But given this new challenge, were like, well, maybe, maybe the risk is worth the possible benefit.

Ybarra [00:16:58] Yes, there were several moms who talked about that, especially with SNAP, because SNAP did the expanded pandemic EBT, which is essentially replacing school lunches for kids who are in lockdown. And there were several moms who reported that they were going to seek those benefits, but also told us, lots of moms, most of the moms in our sample, there’s this kind of narrative around undocumented families don’t seek government benefits right, they’re in the shadows. That’s actually it’s much more mixed. Most of our moms pre-pandemic were accessing some safety net provision for their kid. Usually Medicaid, sometimes SNAP for the moms who weren’t, it was compounded by maybe they had had an interaction before and were treated poorly. We had a couple of moms tell us that that had happened, and they were scared in the aftermath of the pandemic because they had those prior interactions with the State. Some moms reported their older children convincing them to apply, at least for the pandemic. So it did change a little bit. But we also had a sample of moms who most were already trying to get things for their kids in particular.

Siers-Poisson [00:18:14] It struck me how many of the moms who you quoted in the paper had had experiences that could only be described, I think, as demeaning and disrespectful from people working in the system. So it wasn’t necessarily, oh, this person is going to report me to immigration, but this person basically shamed me for not being able to feed my kids.

Ybarra [00:18:39] It was that, but there was there was definitely also some immigration issues related to that. And I’ll give you an example of a quote from the paper. And this is from Sara, who is a 40-year-old unmarried Honduran immigrant mother of four who thought about applying for food stamps, SNAP Link in the aftermath of the pandemic because, she said, told us her children “were telling me to apply for link student Link because they weren’t going to school and they were giving students Link. But in the past I have applied for Link, and the social worker had told me that my family does not need Link because we need to have legal status. And she said it to me in a very mean way. She gave me an application, but she said to me, if you are an immigrant, you should not fill it out because it will affect you. I didn’t want to fill it out after that because I was scared.” So there was some it’s, you know, for for moms who are undocumented, it’s both. And I think rather than an either or.

Siers-Poisson [00:19:39] And that reminds me, we haven’t actually talked about the issue of public charge. And I think that was in the news quite a bit several years ago, but I’m not sure everyone has a good idea of what that really means and the fear attached to it. So can you briefly explain public charge and how that affected folks like these moms you were you were interviewing?

Ybarra [00:19:58] Yes. So public charge rules and laws have, you know, happened in the U.S. Over the last century. The most recent one, I should say, the pandemic era one, was the Trump administration’s, which was approved and rolled out at the same time as the pandemic, essentially. So there was lots of news about public charge, which essentially, in lay person’s terms, is if you’re an immigrant, including if you’re undocumented and you or your immediate family use public benefits in any way, so think SNAP, WIC, TANF, you know some some are excluded. I actually … WIC is not included in that. But SNAP and TANF and things of that nature, that you could very well be deemed ineligible for any kind of permanent visa. And so, that is life changing to have a permanent visa. And so families were receiving this information, told us, you know, I heard this on the news, Univision included, which is a popular, Spanish language television station. And so they were very, very hyper aware. You have to be when they’re things that affect not only your livelihood, but your entire family. So they were hyper aware of this new public charge rule that had rolled out, during the pandemic. And a number of moms expressed their concern that they had either delayed seeking any kind of benefit or didn’t at all. And it wasn’t just safety net. There were couple of moms who talked about unemployment insurance, as being fearful of applying for that because it might affect not only them, but maybe even their children. So that was that was another theme of what we found was moms had information on public charge policy, but not always detailed or correct information on it. And that was something that was pretty common across our respondents.

Siers-Poisson [00:21:52] I think a lot of us struggled with, as you said, getting accurate information during the pandemic. And things were changing very quickly as well. One of the things that stood out for me in the interviews that you did was that especially moms who had not interacted with the systems directly before, but even some who had, all of a sudden offices were closed, right? You weren’t even sure how to connect, how to apply, how to get information. What did they tell you about that?

Ybarra [00:22:26] Pretty much exactly that, that they were kind of like what Herd and Moynihan referred to as administrative burdens. And one of those is learning costs, which mean the cost of learning about a program. And Carolyn Barnes has a recent paper on this. It’s also during the pandemic and finds similar things, but with a different kind of sample. We find the same thing among undocumented moms. I do think it’s a finding that transcends group status, in that when we have an economic shock, the Great Recession is another example, and you have folks who’ve never used the safety net who now find themselves eligible after being workers for a long time. I think it’s fair to say that those are folks who are going to be disadvantaged in finding and learning about programs, so those that did it was often through, like it is for most of us, social networks, a friend, a colleague, a worker, your kid’s school. And it tells you about a program and that’s how you learn about it. But yes, if you’re not using government programs in general and then you’re not using them, at least in part due to, you know, fear of surveillance, it’s hard to think that you wouldn’t have these kinds of learning costs in learning about what’s available to you.

Siers-Poisson [00:23:39] We’re in a different phase of the pandemic now, but its impacts are still being felt in many ways by many people. What kind of lasting impacts do you see on Latina moms, like those with whom you’ve been doing interviews over these years?

Ybarra [00:23:54] Yeah, I think for Latina moms, immigrant Latina moms, especially those who are undocumented, you know, we have a lot of work coming out now that is showing the decline in academic achievement via test scores. Right? So we’re all concerned about the lockdowns and how they affected kids educational attainment. Based on our interviews, you know, I would be concerned about kids and immigrant families in terms of their families had a heck of a lot to negotiate beyond just income. And that’s added stressors in addition to learning losses imposed on lots of kids, because of the lockdown. So I think for me, that’s kind of a sticking point. I think another thing I often pin here is that, you know, even in the midst of a disaster, because that’s what I think of the pandemic being akin to, we as a country still decided that immigrant families and their citizen children were not worthy of additional benefits. And so I have kind of a broader macro concern about the messaging that government programs do by including and excluding both formally and informally. So that would be another one. And then the long lasting mental, psychological, as well as income and well-being and hardship for, for kids and families to be excluded, in that particular period of time, I think will have long lasting impact.

Siers-Poisson [00:25:30] So given those long lasting impacts and other elements that have come out of the pandemic, what policy lessons or opportunities do you see coming out of this research? And as you said, other research coming out now looking at the pandemic itself.

Ybarra [00:25:47] Yeah, I think there’s a few things. I mean, the one thing that I think for me is someone who studies policy, that the biggest one is children’s eligibility for public provisions. If they are dependent on parent’s citizenship status, they’re disproportionately not going to receive them because of their family’s legitimate fear of ICE and deportation threat. And so, you know, if I could wave a magic policy wand, it would be that children are eligible based on their status. And just as residency, in addition to just their own status. But that would also take communicating effectively to families. That gets back to this question of good information. You can do that, but if families don’t know about it or they don’t trust that, it’s not going to happen. So I think it would also have to be paired with that. I would say the other one, it is really clear that families trusted nonprofits more than they did the state. And I found that in other research, actually, that people in general are more trusting of nonprofits, which is interesting in and of itself. But that, to me is an opportunity. It was also the case that only about half of our moms were connected to nonprofits in their communities. And Chicago has a huge nonprofit sector. So that was surprising to us. So I think there’s an opportunity for nonprofits, to kind of think strategically about not just outreach during, you know, when something hits, but kind of ongoing, engaged community outreach that keeps communities connected to nonprofits that are relevant to them. I know that, you know, we talked about schools and the distrust of the education in Chicago being desperate for poor Black and brown kids relative to kids who are better resourced. But another thing that came up was moms trusted school employees, though. Like we were often told, like I found out about this nonprofit from this lady who works at my school. I found out about, you know, this program from one of my kid’s teachers. The school reached out to me and someone had donated 100 food boxes, and they reached out because they knew we couldn’t get SNAP. And I got a food box. You know, I’m not the first to suggest these things. I don’t certainly don’t want to give that impression, but I think, you know, thinking about institutions as safe harbors, if you will, in schools might be a conduit to distributing good quality information and things that are important to families at a given time, as well as connecting them to other resources.

Siers-Poisson [00:28:40] And Marci, as we wrap up, what further research would you like to do or see done on this topic?

Ybarra [00:28:46] I think, there’s so many opportunities here already mentioned the ones where, you know, when we’re figuring out how children are doing post pandemic over the long term is researchers, you know, trying to sort out which of those kids are in mixed-status families is really important. It’s also very difficult to do, that kind of data is tough to get, but I think it’s essential. And at the very least, tracking how Latino immigrant, children of immigrant kids are doing in school. There were some policy provisions that I think are really interesting. One was the Medicaid expansion of perinatal care. And so that’s kind of the only safety net benefit that undocumented moms are eligible for is when they give birth. They’re eligible for Medicaid for the period around the birth. And that’s it. And it’s literally for about three months. It varies in states, how long that is. But most states, it was no longer than three months. The pandemic set in place a full year for after birth for all moms, not just undocumented moms, but just for all moms who had given birth. And lots of states  — really encouraging to see —  after that provision went away, meaning the feds said, you don’t have to do that anymore, lots of states opted to continue to do that because the research demonstrates it’s good for mom. It’s good, it’s good for baby, it’s good for family. But undocumented moms again around the time of a birth are back at that old limit in most states. So I think that there’s really good work to be done demonstrating the trade offs of undocumented moms getting less care than other moms who have recently given birth. So those would be the two things that I would like to spend my time on.

Siers-Poisson [00:30:36] Well, Marci, thank you so much for spending your time with us. It’s really important and interesting work.

Ybarra [00:30:42] Well, thank you so much for having me, Judith. I appreciate you highlighting the work of me and my awesome colleague Frania Mendoza Lua.

Siers-Poisson [00:30:50] Thanks so much to Dr. Marci Ybarra For talking with us about her recent paper titled “No Calm Before the Storm: Low-Income Latina Immigrant and Citizen Mothers Before and After COVID-19.” You can find a link to the paper in the program notes for this episode. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But views expressed by our speakers don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office or of any other sponsor, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Music for the episode is by Poi Dog Pandering. Thanks for listening.


Child Poverty, Children, Early Childhood Care & Education, Economic Support, Education & Training, Employment, Eviction & Foreclosure, Family & Partnering, Food & Nutrition, Food Assistance, Food Insecurity, Health, Health General, Housing, Immigration, Inequality & Mobility, Justice System, K-12 Education, Labor Market, Low-Wage Work, Low-Wage Work, Means-Tested Programs, Parenting, Policing, Racial/Ethnic Inequality, Unemployment/Nonemployment


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