Urban Wire The shutdown has federal families experiencing instability already felt by many
Gina Adams
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As the government shutdown drags into its fourth week, furloughed federal workers face mounting challenges paying for housing, medical expenses, utilities, child care, and food. The situation is particularly bleak for low-income contract workers, like janitors and security guards, who may have less savings and who were not included in recently passed legislation guaranteeing back pay for federal workers once the shutdown ends.  

The shutdown is destabilizing these families and their children, putting their well-being and healthy development in jeopardy. Unfortunately, these workers are joining millions of other parents facing similar challenges. Our recent report on hardship among low-income families with children shows that many parents in the US already face these same challenges, with no promise of back pay or any other measure of stability.

More than two-thirds (68.5 percent) of all low-income parents (those with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level) living with children younger than 19 reported challenges paying for housing, utilities, food, or medical care in 2017. This proportion rose to almost 73 percent when looking at low-income parents with children younger than 6.

What do these numbers mean in human terms?

These families face real difficulties meeting their family’s basic needs.

More than two in three low-income parents faced challenges such as paying for and staying in their homes, keeping their utilities paid for and running, paying for medical bills and accessing medical care, or being able to provide consistent, sufficient meals for their families.

Parents facing these challenges were found across different groups; they were both above and below the poverty level, they were of different races and ethnicities, they constituted single-parent and two-parent families, and they were working and nonworking parents, parents who hadn’t completed high school, and parents with higher education.

We found that parents facing hardship were likely (40 percent) to have health problems or disabilities and were less likely to have $400 to cover unexpected expenses. Parents facing hardship also reported experiencing large financial shocks; 37 percent reported large unexpected losses in income, and 48 percent reported large unexpected expenses.

How does hardship affect children?

  1. Parents struggle to provide children the resources they need to thrive.

Parents work hard to protect their children from the effects of inadequate access to food, health care, or housing. Some may eat less themselves to ensure their children have enough to eat, but they may not be able to always protect their children, thereby risking their access to basic needs.

  1. Children’s mental health is at risk.

Worrying about having a place to sleep or enough food to eat or watching parents worry about major bills or medical expenses affects children’s ability to learn and thrive.

Concentrating in school or sleeping at night is difficult if you are scared or worried. Some kids get clingy, while others can start acting out. The repercussions for a child’s sense of security and his or her healthy development are even greater in severe situations some parents face, such as being evicted, running out of food, or watching a family member’s health problems worsen because of lack of health care.  

  1. Parents also face stress and mental health challenges.

One in every five low-income parents reporting hardship also reported experiencing serious psychological distress, meaning they reported high levels of feeling nervous, hopeless, restless, worthless, exhausted, or so sad that nothing could cheer them up.

Research suggests that these levels of psychological distress are severe enough to impair functioning or require treatment. The incidence of psychological distress was four times higher for these parents than for parents who did not experience hardship, but whether these challenges were caused by these hardships, contributed to them, or both is unclear.

Parents’ psychological distress can affect their children’s well-being. Parents under this kind of stress find it more difficult to find the energy, patience, and focus to give their children the time and attention they need.

Parental depression is a risk factor for child abuse and neglect and is a significant predictor of poor childhood social and academic outcomes, and parents are likely to find it harder to buffer their children from the effects of hardships and to help them feel safe.

Considering these three issues simultaneously, children in families facing hardships seem likely to face additional risks. These risks include losing the basic resources needed for healthy development, growing fears of loss and insecurity about the stability of their world, and witnessing their parents’ emotional challenges and stresses.

There are ways we can help. Our research on instability shows that stabilizing children and families is an important goal, and there are ways every sector can reduce the human costs.

Community organizations, schools, health care providers, and employers can help buffer the effects of these challenges for families and children. State and national policies and programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, programs to stabilize housing, and other safety net programs, as well as efforts to help families build up financial buffers, help stabilize families.

Ensuring that these kinds of short- and long-term support systems are available to families facing hardship—whether it’s because of a government shutdown or to the daily realities facing millions of families with inadequate income and resources—can be critical in stabilizing parents’ abilities to meet their children’s basic needs.

Children need stability and security in their lives to learn and thrive, and their parents need support to help meet their children’s needs and to help them achieve their full potential. This support, in turn, helps them grow into healthy, productive adults.


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Research Areas Social safety net Child welfare
Tags Families with low incomes Poverty Welfare and safety net programs Economic well-being Children's health and development Child welfare
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
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