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Aug. 9, 2022, 1:34 p.m. EDT

‘We are drowning in debt’: Black and brown mothers grapple with more obstacles balancing child care and bills as they return to work

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By Aarthi Swaminathan

For Menyuan Jordan, taking care of her three children while juggling a career that she loves has been like walking a tightrope. 

Being in the mental-health field, Jordan, a social worker in Austell, Ga., knows the value she provides with her work as a community therapist. But she can’t fully focus on work; her children need her at home.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, when schools were shuttered to prevent the spread of the virus, work became impossible for Jordan.

Prior to the virus spreading through the country, Jordan was running a child-care center. She soon had to quit as all three children were at home, and it was her and her husband’s responsibility to guide them through remote learning.

The school sent packets home so they became de facto teachers of first, second, and fifth grades. 

But since then, some things have changed. With her husband stepping up to help, she’s able to go back to work, even if sometimes that means on an unpaid volunteer basis due to overtime restrictions. Her 80-year-old grandmother, who lived nearby, has been helping out with the kids, as well as her husband’s retired parents who are in Augusta, Ga.

Still, lots of issues were unresolved.

“We are drowning in debt,” Jordan told MarketWatch. “My husband just had to take out money from his 401(k) just to pay the debt that we accumulated during COVID, because I couldn’t work.” 

Jordan had over $150,000 in student-loan debt. She received a masters degree from Clark Atlanta University, and stayed on for her doctorate in policy planning and administration. She couldn’t finish the degree because it had gotten too expensive. She had maxed out her student loans.

Jordan also had $20,000 in credit-card debt. “We sometimes had to pay bills with credit cards because we couldn’t make ends meet,” she said. “It’s the interest rate that’s killing us,” she added.

This included expenses like having to buy more food for their children when they were at home during the COVID-19 lockdown, and from unforeseen problems like a water spillage that led to major damage in their home.

“COVID was so stressful,” Jordan said. “We had all three kids in the house, my husband tried to keep us afloat working, and then we had construction crews trying to redo our ceilings while the kids were doing online schooling. It was crazy.” 

Inflation, which hit 9.1% on the year in June, has added significantly to costs. This summer, with three kids at home, Jordan’s grocery bill has increased by at least $500. When they head back to school in the fall, that bill will stay constant because she was slightly over the income threshold for them to qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch. For a household of five, the annual combined income before taxes needed to be below $60,070.  

Jordan is not alone in her efforts to balance work, child care, and debt obligations.

A recent survey from the Equal Rights Advocates found that half of Black and Latinx women are struggling to make ends meet and are in similar situations with increased caregiving responsibilities and debt obligations during the pandemic.

Nearly all of the families the ERA spoke with were millennials or young Gen Xers. About 67% of respondents were Black.

“There is nearly a constant state of anxiety for working mothers and family breadwinners in this country,” Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, told MarketWatch.

In the advocacy group’s survey of 637 women in 15 cities, 55% had child-care responsibilities. Out of this group, 87% said that any disruptions to child care also disrupted their work. 

Between February 2020 and April 2020, when the coronavirus first started spreading across the U.S., the economy lost nearly 22 million jobs, out of which 54% were held by women, according to the National Women’s Law Center’s analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While these jobs are coming back, for many Black and Latinx moms, access to affordable and good quality child care still remains a challenge.

In the ERA survey, 38% said that shifts in child care led to a reduction in work hours. 17% said they were forced to leave their job because they couldn’t find child care. And 31% said that child-care responsibilities will delay their return to work at the same level as before they left. 

Many of these parents also hold various forms of debt, like Jordan, that puts them on unsteady financial ground. 

According to the ERA’s survey, a quarter of respondents held some form of credit card debt, 37% were behind on their mortgage, and 85% said they had taken on additional debt due to personal circumstances. 

Roughly three-fifths said that they weren’t confident that they could pay off their debt with their present or future income. And 80% of those surveyed said that their debt was a significant source of stress that was impacting their mental health.

Consider the fact that 77% said they had less than $30,000 in assets for a rainy day. Half of the respondents said they were scraping through with their income.

This survey “is a picture of America squeezed on all sides, most especially family breadwinners of color and mothers of color,” Farrell said. 

For Jordan — who was a single parent for more than a decade before getting married — debt forgiveness would erase a big source of anxiety in one fell swoop.

Farrell said there were several things that legislators can do to help moms: Expanding access to paid leave , reinstating the child-tax credit , providing more affordable child care, and raising the minimum wage so that people can afford child care.

“This is about how you value women’s work and what you’re willing to do to make sure there’s full participation,” Farrell said. “Until the work of women is prioritized and child care is seen as an essential component of that, there won’t be policies to really address what are long standing inequities in our economy.”

So what can working mothers do?

If you’re a working mom struggling to balance child care and work, here are a few ideas.

Recruit friends, or family members, like grandparents to help out. If you have this luxury of family, recruit your mother or your husband’s mother to help out with baby or your child at home. If you have a friend that’s got a more liberal schedule than you, perhaps that person could help out.

Be strict about time. When working from home, it’s easy to veer in either direction, whether it’s mom mode, or mom-at-work mode. Be mindful of when you start work, and when you’re logging off, and don’t look back.

Keep a time limit, of say, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and don’t check your emails outside of those hours, et cetera, unless you believe there’s a true emergency. Being online 24/7 sometimes can make you feel a lot more anxious than you need to be. And your bosses should not expect this of you (unless it’s a job requisite).

Outsource tasks if possible. Why bear all the burden when technology is there to make your life easier. Can you get groceries delivered instead of going to the store? Can you order diapers, or snacks in bulk from Costco’s /zigman2/quotes/201191698/composite COST +3.39% online website? It may be cheaper to order online in bulk than to attempt ad-hoc runs to the grocery store.

It’s a slog, for sure, to be responsible for your children, and to also be a breadwinner for your family, experts say.

Should society manage to truly address the burden on women for child care “and distribute that to men,” Farrell said, then there’s “no doubt that once that happens, there’ll be a very quick fix to child care in this country.” 

But until then, women should “demand more” from their bosses, and really think about where they work, to make sure that their environment is supportive of the family choices they make, she added.

Write to MarketWatch reporter Aarthi Swaminathan at aarthi@marketwatch.com

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