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Parents are struggling with high prices this year. It may shape how they vote

Joseph Yusuf plays basketball with his daughter, Jakayla Morton, 11, in Alexandria, Va., on March 29.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Joseph Yusuf plays basketball with his daughter, Jakayla Morton, 11, in Alexandria, Va., on March 29.

Any parent will tell you it's the hardest job, and many say it's gotten more difficult because everyday expenses have increased in recent years.

Joseph Yusuf of Washington, D.C., is one of them. He spends every afternoon with his 11-year-old daughter, Jakayla. She lives with her mom nearby, and after school, Yusuf and Jakayla do homework together, sometimes play video games or shoot hoops.

He has a big support system — that includes his mom and grandmother, who help out as he manages his full-time job and co-parenting Jakayla. But rising costs have left him feeling particularly challenged.

Yusuf, who works at Howard University as an events and facilities coordinator, says he wants to eventually start saving for her college, but for months now, after bills are paid, there's no money left over.

"Food, gas, car insurance, rent, just any and everything. All the above have just risen. And I'm not going to lie to you, I stress," he says. "There's a part of me that just, you know, wants to break down."

Many Americans say economic pressures —particularly inflation — are key to how they are thinking about this year's election. Consumer prices have remained high in the U.S., even though the job market has been quite stable. For groceries, for example, families are paying 25% more than they were before the pandemic.

Raegen Selden has six children ranging from 11 to 25 years old, and the Philadelphia mother says in those 25 years she has been raising children, inflation has made this one of the tougher financial times for her and her husband despite that they are bringing in more money.

"I feel like it's harder now because even though I am financially where I wasn't 25 years ago, I feel like things have gotten more expensive," she says. "And so if I had to, I guess, go back to that time, I would have said that I was doing better back then than I am now."

Selden says she wants to see lawmakers address these economic pressures on families.

"Ultimately, this is our future," she says. "And if we don't make the right decisions now, we're basically just wiping out an entire generation because where will they be if we can't give them just the bare minimum? So I think that it absolutely does shape the way that I look at this upcoming election."

The child tax credit offered a solution during the pandemic

During the pandemic many families were getting significant financial help from the government.

From July to December 2021, a majority of American households with children were given the option of getting an advance on the child tax credit paid out in monthly installments. The expansion also increased the tax credit amount and made it refundable, which was a big help to low-income families.

The expanded child tax credit alleviated some of the financial pressure millions of families were facing. According toa study from Boston University, the expanded tax credit lifted 3 million children out of poverty. And according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy, it cut child poverty by 43%.

Joseph Yousef plays basketball with his daughter, Jakayla Morton, 11, in Alexandria, VA., on March 29.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
Keren Carrión/NPR
Joseph Yousef plays basketball with his daughter, Jakayla Morton, 11, in Alexandria, VA., on March 29.

Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Children's Defense Fund, says the economic benefits for families were widespread.

"Families used their [child tax credit] to pay down debt," he says. "They spent it on their families more than saving it, but they used it for basic bills to purchase food. ... We know that it helped to stabilize more than anything else, food insecurity."

Wilson says the rate of food insecurity among eligible families dropped by almost 30% when they started receiving those monthly payments. "So, it meets basic needs," he says.

But Congress let that extra help expire, and it ended at a time that inflation kept climbing. While inflation has started to cool, Wilson says, families are still catching up.

"The economic situation for children and families is getting better as inflation eases," he says. "But you have to consider the fact that this significant support was taken away at a time when prices were still high. And parents have to recover from that."

Alicia Gordon, the founder and executive director of the Current Project, a nonprofit focused on Black single mothers, says what happened in 2021 is proof that the government has ways to provide meaningful help to families.

"Why is it that in the pandemic we actually were able to utilize our imaginations about how to reimagine processes like child tax credit in turning it from a one-time payment at the end of the tax year into a multiple month payment where we saw millions of children being lifted out of poverty," Gordon says, "and then when that ended all of these children go back into poverty."

A political voice for parents

There is a new effort to temporarily expand the child tax credit again, though not as generously as during the pandemic. But, like a lot of things in Congress, it'sstalled.

Wilson of the Children's Defense Fund says when it comes to policy that helps parents with young children, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of political will.

Joseph Yusuf sits with his daughter, Jakayla Morton, 11, at a basketball court in Alexandria, Va., on March 29.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
Keren Carrión/NPR
Joseph Yusuf sits with his daughter, Jakayla Morton, 11, at a basketball court in Alexandria, Va., on March 29.

"We've not really kind of curated that will at a congressional level," he says. "Young people still don't have strong consumer voices for them among lobbyists, and then they don't have votes in the franchise and so they end up lower on the list."

In recent years, some parents have been working to organize, though.

Keri Rodrigues is the president of the National Parents Union, which was created to give parents a collective voice when it comes to policymaking.

Rodrigues says the needs of families in the U.S. often get a lot of lip service, but parents get left out of important conversations.

She said families have been roped into what she calls "divisive political wars and culture wars" that's distracted from serious economic pressures that families face. Rodrigues says there has been widespread support for the expanded child tax credit and she and others fought to try to not let it lapse.

Gordon says there are going to be political costs if the growing financial needs of families continue to be ignored — especially during an election year.

"We're in a very precarious place right now for 2024," she says. "And in my circles and the conversations that I'm having with Black women and Black single mothers alike, there's real questions about whether or not they are going to extend their vote blindly."

"I venture to say that there are many who are going to be very interested in hearing real solutions around issues, not just lip service and expecting politicians to earn their vote," Gordon says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.
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