The pandemic is proving how broken the system is.
She has an advanced degree, two kids and not a dollar to her name. She started the year with a move, to be closer to family and her children's father. Life was going well, but then she lost her job in March, lost her apartment weeks later and has spent hours on the phone fighting her eviction and seeking unemployment.
Since, she's cashed out her savings and investments, moved in with family and emptied her kid's piggy bank for gas money. She wakes up each morning feeling increasingly desperate and depleted, in the single bedroom she shares with her children. She can't see her therapist because her balance is overdue.
This is motherhood in America in 2020, as told by an anonymous mom. She wants to be nameless to protect her job search, but she is not ashamed because she's just one of so many mothers experiencing this right now.
"I feel like moms are being hit the hardest during this pandemic," she tells Motherly. "I know mothers on every level—essential employees, skilled workers, moms with multiple degrees and they are burning the candle at both ends...I know I'm not alone."
She sure isn't. In Tennessee, Hollie Lockett, mother of five kids, was laid off from her custodial position—but the bills kept coming. In Connecticut, Zully, a Guatemalan immigrant and mom, had to rely on a GoFundMe when she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and gave birth weeks early. In Virginia, Rhonda, mom of six kids, lost her job, then her home, then her car. In Florida, new mom Maggie Jensen saw her unemployment claim basically erased—after months of waiting, the status of her claim went from 'pending' to 'eligible' to mysteriously 'not registered'.
In all of these cases the mothers sought assistance after losing their jobs, and all were stymied by bureaucratic red tape and backlogs.
Mothers are waiting months for unemployment
The number of American workers filing for unemployment is at a record high, and state unemployment offices are backlogged. Desperate people are spending days lined up in unemployment office parking lots, or waiting on hold on the phone. Some have been waiting for unemployment for weeks or months. Of the mothers above, only Lockett got what she needed, and only after months of waiting.
And at the end of this month, when the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program expires, Lockett and millions of other Americans who did secure unemployment will be getting $600 less each week.
In Brooklyn, New York, Brook Garrison, a single mom, is luckier than many, because she actually received unemployment, but tells NBC News she "will be totally screwed" when PUA ends and she loses that extra $600. She hasn't worked since she was laid off from an Olive Garden in March.
Garrison worries about what her family will eat when the PUA program expiries because she expects food banks will be busy. Economists worry about that, too, as 30 million people are in the same boat as Garrison.
Our anonymous mom explains how hard it was to find out if she could even qualify for unemployment: "I couldn't get a hold of anyone for two months. I would spend three hours on the phone for the system to just... disconnect me. After two and a half months, I was finally able to talk to someone who clarified the issues, and filed the PUA claim. I was told it would take 21 business days."
By that time, PUA will have expired anyway.
The pandemic is financially devastating many parents, especially vulnerable mothers
Seventy percent of parents recently surveyed say their "family is struggling," an increase from 58% in March and 61% in April. Meanwhile, 56% of parents have gone into debt since the pandemic began. Single parents are more likely than married couples to have increased their credit card debt, and single mothers have seen more job losses than other groups during the pandemic. This is in part because they bear the burden of childcare alone and because solo moms are more likely to work in industries hit hard by the pandemic, like the service industry.
According to a Pew Stateline analysis of census microdata, 83% of single moms working as restaurant servers (like Garrison) had lost their jobs by mid-April. Seventy-two percent of single moms who worked as cleaners (like Lockett) were out of work, as were 58% of cooks, 33% of personal care aides and 14% of customer service representatives.
But even moms who work in higher-paying industries (like Jensen, who is in the real estate industry) are not immune to the financial pain of the pandemic. As the anonymous mom learned, a college degree doesn't guarantee work in this climate. In a recent survey of student loan borrowers, 45% of parents who've lost income during the pandemic said food insecurity was an issue for their family.
Food prices are up as incomes are down
New data released this week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that even though American parents are poorer, it takes more money than ever to put food in the fridge. The cost of food rose by 0.6% in June, trending upward for the sixth month in a row.
Parents who are having trouble affording food can apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as food stamps—a program the Families First Coronavirus Response Act aimed to make accessible to more families during the pandemic. Mothers with young kids may also qualify for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), but as the anonymous mom at the beginning of our story recently learned, these programs do not cover diapers. She doesn't know how she'll pay for them.
"We, the 99%, are drowning. I personally know a lot of stories like mine. I feel like we are headed to a depression of the middle class that will be more brutal than the 1930s and with no real hope in sight," she tells Motherly.
Rent is unaffordable for many mothers
Food costs are soaring and so is the cost of housing in America. A new report by National Low Income Housing Coalition released this week details how impossible it is to afford housing.
Our anonymous mom knows this all too well. Her move in January was prompted, in part, by a raise in rent at her old place. She found a "shady" apartment closer to her family and says the people in her city who can afford their own homes either have generational wealth or were married with multiple income streams. That's not her reality, and it puts owning a home (or even renting a good apartment) out of reach.
According to the report, the average American renter's hourly wage is $18.22 and "as a result, the average renter must work 53 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment."
As the report's authors note: "Some of the most important workers during the COVID-19 outbreak earn even less [than the average renter's wage]: grocery store cashiers earn a median wage of $11.61 per hour, while building cleaning workers and home health and personal care aides earn $12.94. They would have to work 83 and 74 hours per week, respectively, to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. Many single parents or caregivers would find it difficult if not impossible to work those hours."
Our anonymous mom knows how hard it is to work as many hours as you can get and still not get by, especially when childcare spots are expensive, hard to come by and disappearing every day.
So how can parents get financial help in 2020?
So many parents have questions about financial assistance right now, and the sad truth is there are no easy answers.
We don't know if the federal government will extend the PUA program.
We don't know when state unemployment offices will catch up.
We don't know when or how mothers will be able to go back to work.
And that mom, the one with the degree and no money to her name? She doesn't know what she is going to do, either. She contacted her state representative this week, which finally led to some action on her case. It turned out she was not eligible for unemployment because she accepted a new job in January. Had she made that move 30 days earlier she would have qualified.
"They are reprocessing my claim and said I should have a definitive answer in two days but that I should come to terms with the fact that I won't see any funds," she says, explaining that the move was so necessary. In her previous location, she had no support when her kids would get sick and her day care required them to stay home if they ran a fever (which wasn't uncommon). She'd run through her PTO and her vacation days and couldn't afford to miss more work when her kids were ill. She needed help.
"Would this be as big of a problem if there were stronger social systems put in place? Absolutely not," she says, wondering, "How have we fallen so far?"
She's currently looking for a remote job and taking meetings over Zoom while her children try not to make noise in the cramped, borrowed and shared bedroom they all hope will only be their home temporarily.
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