They played by the rules and worked hard to earn what they have. They live in a nice neighborhood in Bucks County with their children. By all appearances, they’ve made it.
But due to the rising costs of raising a family, “making it” isn’t at all it’s cracked up to be, according to a new report from Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
Middle-class families in Bucks County have a shameful secret. After paying for the basics, like child care, health care, housing, food and taxes, they’re fending off financial ruin at the end of every year, wondering why the American Dream feels more like a nightmare. Many parents suspect things will only get worse for their children.
“There are a lot of solidly middle-class families who believe they’re in this fight all alone but that’s clearly not the case,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of PCCY, at an April 23 panel discussion, marking the launch of a new study. “The shame here is just how common the stress and struggle to stay afloat is in Bucks County.”
In “Underwater: What’s Sinking Families in Bucks County,” the child advocacy organization explores the stark reality of the spiraling costs of raising children and recommends practical and large-scale actions to restore the promise of upward mobility lost for too many in the region.
The panel discussion at the Bucks County Opportunity Council offices in Bristol, moderated by Jon Rubin, director of Human Services, County of Bucks, featured community experts who serve growing numbers of Bucks families struggling to keep their finances afloat.
The panel included Marissa Christie, CEO of United Way of Bucks County, Joann Dorr, manager of Community Health and Wellbeing at St Mary Medical Center, Morrisville School District Superintendent Jason Harris, and Erin Lukoss, executive director of Bucks County Opportunity Council.
Comfortably ensconced in the middle-class, Bucks County two-child families earning $75,000 annually have barely anything left over after covering the basics – likely just $50 per week.
Even without the burden of child care costs, these families end up with $14,000, hardly enough to cover such everyday “extras” as clothing, sports teams and other activities for the kids, birthdays, and vacations.
Underwater shows that the circumstances of families earning $50,000 are predictably worse, even counting for child care and health care subsidies for which higher-bracket families aren’t eligible. Adjusting for their more modest means and typically lower-cost basics, these families are likely to end up with just $40 a week to cover everything beyond the basic expenses; without child care, that means $7,000 for those everyday extras.
Even in the best circumstances, neither family has much to sock away for retirement, college savings, let alone emergency funds.
At the Bucks County Opportunity Council, Erin Lukoss sees first-hand how many families are balancing their priorities on a razor’s edge and how many cuts they experience to prove it.
“It can be one thing,” said Lukoss. “One thing. One huge electric bill, one car repair, one illness. It’s one thing that will leave them unable to pay the rent, keep their kids from going to summer camp.” It’s a “vicious” downward spiral, she said.
Unfortunately, their struggles are often a secret that many hard-working families bear, but that shame is misplaced as their circumstances are of no fault of their own. From child care to health premiums, the cost of raising a family is on the rise.
Health insurance premiums are rising across the board and out-of-pocket costs for health conditions such as asthma, ADD, and weight issues increase the burden on families.
Most Bucks County families are covered through an employer, but the average annual premium that families paid for sponsored health insurance in 2017 was $5,377. In 2014, the average cost was $3,598. At the same time, the share employers pay increased by $1,210 on average since 2013, reducing their ability to raise wages.
Families that buy health insurance on the marketplace are, predictably, in an even more precarious situation. In 2014, the average annual premium for a family with two children in Bucks County was $11,339. In 2018, the cost for the same premium more than doubled to $23,345.
Soaring property taxes compound the challenge, as they’re not only costly today but allude to an even higher penalty for Bucks County tomorrow.
Since 2010, the mandated costs of pensions, special education and charter school payments have shot up $230 million in the county while new state funding has risen by only $88 million during the same period, forcing districts to push through property tax hikes.
But the greater cost is the pronounced struggle most students face in underfunded classrooms, with 46 percent failing the math PSSA and 26 percent failing the test for reading, directly threatening the promise of upward mobility for the next generation.
In Underwater, the follow-up to the Left Out series of reports documenting the status of children in Southeastern Pennsylvania, PCCY recommends a slate of key actions policymakers can take to support Bucks County’s beleaguered middle-class.
Policy Recommendations are as follows:
Boost family incomes: create a workforce development to move people into higher paying jobs; and increase the wage of Direct Support Professionals to $15 an hour and eventually $18 an hour;
Reduce the child care and early education cost burden: increase funding for Child Care Works, Pre-K Counts, and Head Start; expand eligibility for Child Care Works; and implement full day kindergarten in all school districts.
Reduce the health care cost burden: expand eligibility for Children’s Health Insurance Program; and preserve the Affordable Care Act;
Reduce the cost burden of other living expenses: create more affordable transportation through mobility planning at the county level; and create affordable housing strategies at the county level;
Reduce the tax burden on financially struggling families: expand PA’s Tax Forgiveness program to incomes of at least $75,000; and offset property taxes by increasing state funding for public schools;
Improve the financial outlook of public schools: increase State K-12 basic education and special education funding; and restore the State’s charter school reimbursement to school districts.