Despite Labor Market Gains in 2018, There Were Only Modest Improvements in Families’ Ability to Meet Basic Needs

Brief

Despite Labor Market Gains in 2018, There Were Only Modest Improvements in Families’ Ability to Meet Basic Needs

Abstract

This brief uses data from the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey to examine changes in material hardship between 2017 and 2018. We find that, despite the strong labor market during this period, there was only modest progress in families’ ability to meet basic needs. Nearly 4 in 10 nonelderly adults reported that in 2018, their families had trouble paying or were unable to pay for housing, utilities, food, or medical care at some point during the year—which was not significantly different from the share reporting these difficulties in 2017. There were small but statistically significant declines in the shares of adults reporting being unable to pay utility bills, having utilities shut off, and problems paying family medical bills, and in the share reporting more than one type of hardship. The survey highlights economic challenges beyond employment that may help explain the persistently high rates of hardship among adults in low-income families, including unexpected income losses, inadequate savings, household members with disabilities, lack of health insurance, and high housing costs relative to income. These findings underscore that, although employment is a critical determinant of families’ ability to meet basic needs, it is not the only factor, and further progress will likely depend on policies to raise and stabilize incomes, offset the cost of essential expenses, and provide a buffer against adverse financial shocks.

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