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September 9, 2021

For Struggling Families, the Pandemic Forces Hard Choices

Basic household expenses out of reach for many

Sammy Ayatey woke to flashing police lights and realized with a start that his car was surrounded. When he rolled down his window, the officers wanted to know what he was doing in a hotel parking lot at 1 in the morning.

Ayatey, 39, didn’t know how to explain that he and his family had literally nowhere else to go. He and his wife and their 12-year-old son had been living in their car in Fort Worth, Texas since the onset of the pandemic. Things started to unravel in August of 2018, when complications from diabetes meant he couldn’t work his warehouse job for six months. When he was denied disability, the family fell behind on rent and had to move in with friends. And then when the pandemic started, their friends no longer felt they could safely host them and they had to move into their car.

“That’s where we started going downhill,” said Ayatey. “You have to make these choices: If you pay the car bill, you can’t pay rent; you can find something to eat, but then you won’t be able to afford medications.”

He studied accounting in college and his wife has a business degree; living in a car isn’t something they ever expected. He just has a part-time job now, and their limited funds are eaten up by car payments, insurance, and their storage unit bill. He’s been unable to pick up his diabetes medication because they can’t afford the $110 per month it costs — something that worries him constantly as multiple members of his family have died of the disease.

His son has been attending virtual school from the car or the public library. Trying to answer his questions about what their family is going through is the most difficult part, Ayatey said.

“You’re trying to catch up and as soon as you try to catch up something else always happens,” he said. “I’m not giving excuses, it's just very difficult; we’ve tried everything we can.”

Ayatey is not alone. The number of households with children who reported difficulty affording basic household expenses — things like rent, food, or medical bills — peaked at 45 percent in November 2020, according to a study by the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. That figure dipped slightly to 35 percent in June 2021.

45%
The share of households with children who had difficulty affording basic expenses in November 2020

“The pandemic has put a spotlight on the conditions that characterize a lot of people that work minimum- or insufficient- wage jobs,” said Beadsie Woo, director of family and youth financial stability at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Woo blames a couple of major trends. The first is employers’ move toward “just in time” scheduling, where unpredictable hours often given on short notice make it nearly impossible for employees to work multiple jobs, which is often necessary with low-wage work, or to arrange child care. Part-time workers and contract workers also rarely get employer benefits like health insurance or paid sick leave, let alone retirement benefits, making them particularly vulnerable in the pandemic.

“There are lots of families who have figured out with incredible precision how to manage their finances so that their expenses exactly equal the net income they have — but that doesn’t leave room for any kind of savings or financial cushion that would help them in the event of an emergency. Even something like a flat tire can really bump a family into financial jeopardy,” Woo said. “And the pandemic was, of course, unprecedented for so many of us.”

Angelia Lawrence, a 52-year-old living in central North Carolina with two children, said that despite rigorous budgeting, it’s these unexpected expenses that get her.

“I’m fairly good with money: I do my budget and I pay my bills. But when there’s not enough money, there’s not enough money,” she said.

Her toilet doesn’t work because she doesn’t have the money to fix a leaky pipe, and her house’s heat is broken, which she can only hope she’ll be able to fix by winter. When an expected payment was a few days late recently, she had to borrow $8 from her children’s father to get to a doctor’s appointment.

Things are comparatively good for Lawrence at the moment. After having spent time in a homeless shelter and then living in government housing, she bought her own home — a feat she’s proud of accomplishing against a lot of odds.

Still, the groceries they get from a charity and occasionally from her mother are rarely enough to feed two growing teenagers.

“The worst part is when your kids say, ‘I’m hungry,’ and you don’t have anything to give them,” she said.

The worst part is when your kids say, ‘I’m hungry,’ and you don’t have anything to give them

Angelia Lawrence

For some Americans, these financial gymnastics are affecting their choice to have children at all.

Erik Thomas is a 38-year-old high school history teacher in northwest Connecticut. She and her husband would like kids but have no idea how they’d support them.

“It makes me feel like that I’m failing somehow, that even though I’m working my butt off that I still can’t maintain a stable home,” Thomas said. “I remember, growing up, my parents were able to support a family of four on one income — why can’t I make this work? It leaves me feeling worthless sometimes.”

Between her master’s and her undergraduate degree, Thomas has $100,000 of student debt. Despite having always been insured, she also has $10,000 of medical debt. Half of her income goes to rent and the rest rarely covers an entire month of groceries. She typically gets retail jobs in the summer, but the effects of the pandemic have made them scarce.

Even when she and her husband can’t afford food, she still always keeps her classroom stocked with granola bars — she teaches at a school with high poverty levels and says it’s not uncommon for her students to go multiple days without eating. Between the food and covering basic supplies like books and paper, she spends $150 a month on her classroom.

“We rely on teachers to be the ones who create the next generation,” Thomas said. “But I’m in $100,000 of debt from degrees that were preparing me for a job I can barely survive on.”

Thomas loves teaching despite it all, and her relationship with her students means she doesn’t regret her career choice, but she panics constantly about what kind of a future both she and her students will be able to afford.

“A lot of families are living on thin margins,” Woo said. “That doesn’t just mean they don’t have any savings for emergencies. It means they don’t have any savings to plan or, frankly, to dream of a different kind of life.”

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