One in five millennial parents today is impoverished, a new study by the Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy group, found. Since 2000, the poverty rate for this demographic has increased by 40%.
“They’re being expected to do more with a lot less,” says Konrad Mugglestone, author of the report, Finding Time: Millennial Parents, Poverty, and Rising Costs. Millennial incomes have decreased about 10% in the past 10 years, while workers over 35 saw a 4% drop in wages. At the same time, experts predict nearly two-thirds of jobs will require some form of (increasingly expensive) secondary education by the year 2020. At the same time, the cost of raising a child has skyrocketed over the last several decades. In 1960, childcare consumed just 2% of a young parent’s budget, compared to 18% today, Young Invincibles found.
For college-educated millennials like Jessica Juárez Scruggs, even a degree and a decent paying job aren’t always enough to ensure a solid financial foundation for a family. When Jessica, 29, and her husband, Yader, 30, moved to Washington, D.C. from their hometown in Seattle in 2013, the newlyweds were better prepared than most of their contemporaries for young adulthood. Their savings account was flush with funds for a future home down payment. Neither had any student debt to worry about, since Jessica earned a scholarship that covered her tuition and Yader, an EMT, hadn’t needed to take out loans for his degree. Jessica planned on working part time while earning her master’s degree in political communications at the American University.
They hadn’t planned to start a family, but Jessica learned she was pregnant on her first day of grad school. The news wasn’t unwelcome, but the couple quickly realized their budget, even with two incomes, wasn’t fit to cover a family of three. After their son was born, Jessica left her job to care for him. On her husband’s EMT pay alone, the couple’s income fell below the federal poverty level for a family of three, $20,090.
“We were married and we were in a pretty good position, and yet it was incredibly difficult to just make it work financially,” Jessica says. “I just kept thinking if I can’t make ends meet, I can’t imagine what somebody who’s not as privileged is going through.”
More young parents today are college-educated, but earning a degree comes at a steep price. College-educated millennial parents had a median debt load of $25,709 in 2008 (the most recent Department of Education data available), more than 25% higher than the median $20,000 taken out by non-parents, according to the report.
“It will probably take us decades to recover financially from the last years.”
After her son’s birth, Jessica decided to leave her full-time job as a nonprofit consultant in lieu of using a child care service or a nanny. Such care would have cost $1,200 a month, nearly as much as they paid to rent their 400-square-foot studio apartment.
“We would like to both work but there is literally no job that pays for childcare,” she says. “I would have had to work part-time when I was in school and no part-time job would even let us break even in terms of child care.
So they leaned on Yader’s income and their savings for household expenses like groceries, and Jessica maxed out her federal loans for her two-year graduate program ($41,000 in total). After tuition expenses, the loans were just enough to cover their rent each month.
It’s not hard to imagine why young people today are pushing off parenthood for as long as their budgets and biology will allow. Birth rates among millennial women fell 15% between 2007 and 2012, according to recent study by the Urban Institute. Looking at the math, putting off having a kid just seems like sound financial sense.
But there’s more lawmakers could be doing to lessen the financial burden on young parents who are struggling to support families while also keeping up in an increasingly competitive job market.
Mugglestone says some initiatives, such as the CCAMPIS federal grant program, which funds on-campus child care services for low-income parents, warrant expansion. With 86 campuses awarded grants in 2014, CCAMPIS funds provided spots for 50,000 dependents of college students. But Mugglestone estimates true need exceeds 1 million and funding cuts haven’t helped — funding has been reduced from $25 million in 2001 to $15.1 million in 2014.
And, although it’s promising to see that the rate of parents pursuing college degrees has risen by 50% over the last decade, the reality is that student parents are much less likely to complete their degrees. On-campus child care could be the boost they need.
There are a few pieces of legislation aimed at lightening the financial burden of young parents. The Schedules That Work Act would require employers to give employees work schedules at least two weeks in advance; the Healthy Families Act would give workers seven paid sick days per year; and the FAMILY Act would grant up to 12 weeks of paid leave (a maximum of $1,000 a week) for all workers. Currently, there is no federal requirement for employers to provide paid sick leave.
Policy changes may not come soon enough to help the Juarez-Scruggs family. After Jessica completes her master’s program next month, the couple will move back to Seattle to be closer to a more traditional support system: friends and family.
“[Having our son] has been a blessing but it is tough,” she says. “We want to buy a house and we want to travel. We haven’t gone on a honeymoon yet. All of that is put on hold. I think it will probably take us decades to recover financially from the last years.”
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