1 in 4 American parents struggled to pay for basic needs

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One in four parents in the U.S. struggled to pay for their family’s basic needs in the past year, a new Pew Research Center survey found.

Among low-income parents, more than half did not have enough money to pay for food, or rent or mortgage payments, and more than one in three also struggled to pay for health care and child care in the past 12 months, according to the survey, which was conducted in September and October.

Low-income parents also were the most likely to report being worried about losing pay or losing their job if they had to miss work due to child care issues.

The survey followed the expiration of the 2021 expanded federal child tax credit which helped reduce child poverty last year, said Sara Kimberlin, a researcher with Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality who studies child welfare policies.

“We might expect to see an increase in the number of families with kids that are struggling to afford things like food and the rent and mortgage and those kinds of basic needs, because we saw a drop off of some of those supports that had been in place,” she said.

The survey is part of a broader, new project by Pew researchers that asks parents about concerns they have surrounding raising kids, said Juliana Horowitz, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center.

“Parents across income groups have a lot of concerns about their kids, of course,” she said. “But lower income parents have this added challenge of struggling when it comes to providing basic needs for their family.”

OPINION:We reduced child poverty by historic rates. Congress can do it again, but it must act now.

Racial disparities in affording food, housing

Among parents at all income levels, Black and Hispanic parents were “especially likely” to say they couldn’t afford food and housing, researchers found.

“That’s consistent with what we’ve seen in other research both from us and other research more generally about financial challenges and financial stresses,” Horowitz said.

When broken down by race, 34% of Black parents said there were times in the past year when they could not pay for food and 39% said they struggled to pay the rent or mortgage. Among Hispanic parents, 31% said they struggled to buy food and 32% struggled with housing costs.

About 1 in 5 white parents said they struggled to pay for food and housing in the past year. Slightly fewer Asian parents reported struggling to pay for the same costs, but the Pew Research Center noted “estimates for Asian adults are representative of English speakers only.”

The findings reflect how, on average, Black and Hispanic workers receive lower wages than other racial groups because of longstanding barriers and racist policies, Kimberlin said.

POVERTY LINE:Main poverty measure hasn’t been updated since the 1960s

Low-income parents struggle with health care, child care 

Nearly a quarter of all parents said they did not have enough money to pay for medical expenses or health care their family needed, and 1 in 5 said there were times in the past year they could not pay for child care.

The numbers were even higher for low-income parents, with 37% of respondents saying they could not pay for medical expenses or health care and 38% saying they couldn’t pay for child care.

In many cases, a parent’s ability to pay for the basics of food and rent is heavily dependent on having someone else look after their child, Horowitz said.

“For working parents with younger children who can’t be home alone or aren’t in school yet that’s very much an essential need for parents to be able to work,” she said.

Parents worry the most about staying home with sick kids

During the pandemic, taking care of a sick child or dealing with child care closures due to quarantine rules weighed heavily on working parents, Horowitz said.

Among all working parents, 19% said they would be “extremely” or “very” worried about losing income to take care of kids at home.

Nearly 1 in 10 of all parents surveyed said they were just as worried about getting fired for staying home to care for children.

“We thought that was a striking number,” Horowitz said. “We’re not talking about taking an extended period of time off, we’re talking about just normal day-to-day interruptions that you might experience as a working parent.”

The numbers were significantly higher for lower-income parents; 45% worried about losing pay and 22% about losing their job.

Lack of sick days among low-income workers means “if they miss work, they miss pay,” Horowitz said.

Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of middle and high income parents said they were “not too” worried or “not at all” worried about losing their jobs if they stayed home to take care of sick kids of because of child care issues.

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