‘Worst’ of inflation seen likely this summer, easing in fall: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices are likely to peak this summer and then begin to dissipate in the autumn, an official with the Biden administration said on Thursday, after news that the consumer price index increased again – by 0.6% – last month.

In the 12 months through May, the CPI accelerated 5.0%, hitting its biggest year-on-year increase since August 2008 and following a 4.2% rise in April. But the official, who asked not to be named, said that was largely due to a “base effect” given the low level of prices seen in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Biden administration remained convinced that the current spike in consumer prices would be transitory, and that assessment was shared by professional forecasters, investors, consumers and businesses, said the official.

“It’s most likely that it’s going to peak in the next few months. We’ll probably see the worst of it this summer, and (then) in the fall, things will probably start to get back to normal,” the official said.

Investors also clearly expected low inflation moving forward, given five-year forward positions, the official said.

“From a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ perspective, it’s pretty clear what investors think. And the same is true for surveys of consumers, surveys of business leaders, and professional forecasters. Everyone’s on the same page.”

The official rejected concerns voiced by Republican lawmakers that President Joe Biden’s proposed boost in spending on infrastructure, child care and community college would put further pressure on prices, given that the spending would only kick in around 2023 and then spread out over a decade.

“This is not piling stimulus upon stimulus,” the official said. “This is addressing a long-term problem over a longer duration. This is a decade-long plan to fix 40-year problems.”

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Fed officials sift through tea leaves of weak U.S. jobs report

By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal Reserve officials grappled on Tuesday with April’s surprisingly weak employment growth, maintaining faith in the U.S. economic rebound but acknowledging the pace of the jobs recovery may prove choppier than anticipated.

The United States added 266,000 jobs last month, about a quarter of the gain penciled in by economists, including Fed officials themselves, in what had been anticipated to be the start of a steady run of strong job growth.

The April report instead raised a broad set of questions about the complicated interplay among peoples’ decisions about whether to work during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, constraints stemming from the lack of child care and closed schools, the slowing pace of COVID-19 vaccinations, global supply bottlenecks for critical goods like semiconductors, and the enhanced federal unemployment benefits that may be encouraging some potential workers to stay home.

In contrast to the low number of jobs created in April, job openings as of the end of March hit a record 8.1 million, narrowing the wedge with the roughly 9.8 million people still unemployed.

“What the data suggests, and what I hear anecdotally, is that labor demand and labor supply are both on the path to recovery but they are recovering at different paces and there may be friction,” Fed Governor Lael Brainard told the Society for Advancing Business Writing and Editing (SABEW).

“There are still concerns over contracting the virus, the need to take public transportation,” she said, while many parents are waiting for schools to reopen.

“I do expect to see good improvement on people wanting to go to work and able to work,” Brainard added. “We are just seeing it in fits and starts,” a fact she said validated the U.S. central bank’s “patient” promise to leave crisis-level interest rates and bond-buying in place until the recovery is more complete.

In separate appearances, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker, and San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly laid out similar arguments, and noted that much may hinge on whether larger numbers of Americans get vaccinated so that people overall become more comfortable in close-contact jobs and activities.

‘HARD CHOICES’

The April jobs report has kindled intense debate in Washington about where the recovery stands and whether current federal policy is stifling aspects of it.

The economy is poised for its strongest growth since the early 1980s, jobs boards are bulging with open positions, and the number of new daily coronavirus infections has recently ebbed to levels not seen since the start of the pandemic.

Businesses, even the smaller enterprises that had to be nursed through the pandemic with federal help, now complain those same benefits are allowing workers to stay home.

Brainard, however, noted that about two-thirds of school-age kids were still not back in classrooms on a full-time basis, while only about a quarter of those aged 18 to 64 – the core of the U.S. work force – are fully vaccinated.

The decision by the Biden administration and Congress earlier this year to extend a weekly $300 federal unemployment benefit until September has become a particular point of contention, with Republican governors in several states moving to halt the payments.

Fed officials, however, have largely discounted the impact of the extra payments on workers’ willingness to seek jobs, arguing that it isn’t the benefit as much as health risks and other problems that are at play. At the start of the pandemic, federal benefits were put in place largely so people would not have to venture out to jobs that might expose them to illness and allow them to spread it further.

“It is true that with the extension of the unemployment benefits people are in a financial position so that they can make those hard choices, about whether they feel comfortable reentering or not,” Mester said on Yahoo Finance.

The pace of the labor market rebound has a direct bearing on how the Fed intends to set monetary policy.

In particular, the Fed has said it would not change its current $120 billion in monthly purchases of government securities until there was “substantial further progress” in reaching maximum employment.

Slower job growth pushes that moment further into the future even as concerns increase that the continuing loose monetary policy may fuel inflation, or drive up asset prices that will eventually return to earth.

New consumer price data this week is expected to stoke that debate as prices for staple goods and commodities like lumber for home projects move higher.

Fed officials, however, say they expect the pressure on prices to also ease over time, just as the difficulties in the labor market will be resolved.

“To the extent that supply chain congestion and other reopening frictions are transitory, they are unlikely to generate persistently higher inflation on their own,” Brainard said, noting that some of the very forces that might generate higher prices now – a surge in demand as people get back to normal activity, for example – won’t be repeated.

Government fiscal spending is also expected to fade next year.

“Remaining patient through the transitory surge associated with reopening will help ensure that the underlying economic momentum that will be needed to reach our goals as some current tailwinds shift to headwinds is not curtailed by a premature tightening of financial conditions,” she said.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir; Editing by Paul Simao)

Biden to propose hike in capital gains taxes to pay for more child care: sources

By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden next week will propose raising taxes on the wealthy to fund about $1 trillion in investments in child care, universal pre-kindergarten education and paid leave for workers, sources familiar with the plan said.

Biden’s proposal calls for increasing the marginal income tax rate to 39.6% from 37%, and nearly doubling taxes on capital gains to 39.6% for people earning more than $1 million, according to the sources.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the president would discuss his “American Families Plan” during an address to Congress next week, but declined to comment on any details. Sources said details would be released next week before the address.

She said the administration had not yet finalized funding plans and underscored the president’s determination to increase investment in child care, early childhood education and making U.S. workers more competitive.

“His view is that that should be on the backs — that can be on the backs of the wealthiest Americans who can afford it and corporations and businesses who can afford it,” Psaki said.

Asked if the proposals would discourage investment in the United States, Psaki said Biden and his economic team did not believe the measures would have a negative impact.

But she noted that Congress, which is deeply divided, must approve the tax measures included in the plan, and other options could still be proposed.

The proposal, which has been in preparation for weeks, triggered sharp declines on Wall Street, with the benchmark S&P 500 index down 1% in early afternoon, its steepest drop in more than a month, after Bloomberg published a report.

Yields on Treasuries, which move in the opposite direction to their price, fell to the day’s low.

Biden’s new plan, likely to cost about $1 trillion, comes after a $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal that has already run into stiff opposition from Republicans. They generally support funding infrastructure projects but oppose Biden’s inclusion of priorities like expanding elder care and asking corporate America to pay the tab.

Tax hikes on the wealthy could harden Republicans’ resistance against Biden’s latest “human” infrastructure plan, forcing Democrats to consider pushing it – or least some of the measures – through Congress using a party-line budget vote known as reconciliation.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia who wields outsize power due to the party’s slim majority, has recently said he is wary of expanding the use of reconciliation.

Wealthy Americans could face an overall capital gains tax rate of 43.4% including the 3.8% net investment tax on individuals with income of $200,000 or more ($250,000 married filing jointly). The latter helps fund the Affordable Care Act.

Currently, those earning more than $200,000 pay an overall rate of about 23.8% including the Obamacare net investment tax instituted as part of the Affordable Care Act. Still, market observers said there was no small amount of doubt whether the capital gains tax proposal would make it through Congress. “If it had a chance of passing, we’d be down 2,000 points,” said Thomas Hayes, chairman and managing member at hedge fund Great Hill Capital LLC, referring to stock market indexes.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Trevor Hunnicutt; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, David Lawder, Dan Burns and Herbert Lash; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman)

Yellen says COVID-19 having ‘extremely unfair’ impact on women’s income, jobs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic has had an “extremely unfair” impact on the income and economic opportunities of women, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on Monday, calling for long-term measures to improve labor market conditions for women.

Yellen, in a dialogue with International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva, said it was critical to address the risk that the pandemic would leave permanent scars, reducing the prospects for women in the workplace and the economy.

She noted that women’s participation in the workforce was already lower in the United States before the pandemic than in Europe, another issue that needed to be addressed.

“I think it’s absolutely tragic, the impact that this crisis has had on women, especially low-skilled women and minorities,” Yellen said, noting that while people at the top of the economic scale had continued to do well, those nearer the bottom, who had already been struggling, had been hardest hit.

“It is an extremely unfair thing that’s happened,” Yellen said, noting that women as a group had experienced far greater job losses since they had been disproportionately represented in the service sector and many had dropped out of the labor force to care for children, who were out of school.

“We’re really concerned about scarring, permanent scarring, from this crisis,” she said, adding her hope that President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill would help get the labor market back on track this year or next.

The goal, she said, was to avoid the decade-long gap seen before the labor market recovered after the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.

As of January, women accounted for slightly more than half of the 10 million jobs lost during the coronavirus crisis, even though they typically make up a little less than half the U.S. work force.

More than 2.5 million women left the labor force between February 2020 and January of this year, compared to 1.8 million men.

In the longer-term, Yellen said it was critical to improve the conditions facing women in the labor market, including lack of benefits, paid leave for family emergencies and child care.

“These are things that we are going to address over time,” she said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and David Lawder; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Fed sees little to no growth in much of U.S. as stress mounts

By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal Reserve officials saw “little or no growth” in four of their 12 regional districts and only modest growth in the others in recent weeks as a rapidly spreading health crisis and ongoing recession continued to devastate some U.S. businesses and families even as many others thrive.

In the U.S. central bank’s latest “Beige Book” compendium of anecdotes from businesses across the country, Fed officials seemed to signal that the winter slowdown they’ve feared would follow a new coronavirus outbreak is taking root.

Earlier on Wednesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell repeated his plea for Congress to provide more aid to “get us through the winter” and support businesses and households until a vaccine allows for a broader resumption of commerce. Initial inoculations may begin in the United States this month.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is spreading at a rate of a million new cases a week and around 1,500 deaths a day.

In some places that has led officials to impose new restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. In others, households have pulled back on their own.

But overall it has left little capacity to fix problems that have plagued the economy since the onset of the pandemic last spring, with women sidelined from the workforce due to childcare concerns, leisure and hospitality firms semi-shuttered, and banks concerned their loans books may come under stress soon.

“This is one of the most troubling Beige Books we have seen in a long time,” Jefferies LLC economist Thomas Simon said.

The possibility of growing loan bank stress added a newly worrisome note: The comparative lack of loan defaults so far has prevented the recession from spawning a separate financial crisis.

But “banking contacts in numerous Districts reported some deterioration of loan portfolios, particularly for commercial lending into the retail and leisure and hospitality sectors,” Fed officials reported. “An increase in delinquencies in 2021 is more widely anticipated.”

Commercial real estate – especially in the office and retail sectors – was a weak spot across most districts. The Boston Fed reported that contacts there “estimated daytime office occupancy rates at around 20 percent – bad news for the shops and restaurants that relied on office workers’ business.”

The regional bank also said office tenants nearing the end of leases were renewing only for the short term and that some respondents noted an increase in available subleased space, signaling more trouble ahead in the sector.

Similarly, firms had become tentative about hiring because of the uncertain path of the pandemic.

LABOR MARKET WORRIES

Nearly all districts reported that employment was growing more slowly and that the recovery “remained incomplete.”

Businesses said it was harder to retain workers, especially women, because of challenges finding child care and dealing with school closures caused by the virus. Firms in several districts said they feared “employment levels would fall over the winter” before improving.

In Boston, “a supplier to commercial aviation announced major layoffs over the summer and has not had any reason to revise those plans either up or down,” local Fed officials noted.

Still the latest collection of Fed field reports, compiled on or before Nov. 20, included stories of other firms where managers struggled to find workers to help meet a boom in goods sales.

That divide, among regions and sectors that are doing well and those that are not, has become a hallmark of the current recession and presents the Fed with a difficult decision as it debates whether to provide more support for the economy at its Dec. 15-16 policy meeting.

The economy continues to recover from the deep blow it suffered at the start of the pandemic, and the prospect of a coming COVID-19 vaccine means the recovery could gain steam next year.

In the meantime, the country is 10 million jobs short of where it was in February. Job numbers for November will be released on Friday and are expected to show the pace of improvement is slowing, with some analysts now predicting an outright job loss.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

How poor regions lose out because of U.S. census undercounts

By Nick Brown

ESPANOLA, New Mexico (Reuters) – Getting an accurate count of America’s population has proven difficult in the 2020 Census as the coronavirus pandemic has hampered voluntary responses and forced officials to scale back door-knocking efforts.

The administration of President Donald Trump has placed other hurdles on the path to an accurate count. Its attempt to add a question about citizenship to the census earlier this year likely discouraged undocumented immigrants from filling out the survey, even though the administration’s effort failed, demographics experts say. Local officials nationwide worry about the impact of undercounts on their communities.

“This is going to be the worst response rate we’ve ever had,” said Lauren Reichelt, Health and Human Services Director for Rio Arriba County, New Mexico.

Rio Arriba is typical of other regions across the United States that are hardest to count – and have the most to lose from an undercount. It’s poor, rural and home to many undocumented immigrants. Low population tallies can rob such areas of badly needed federal dollars for affordable housing and child care, for instance, or resources to fight America’s opioid epidemic, according to local officials in some of the most undercounted regions in the last census, taken in 2010.

“Persistent undercounting in communities that would benefit most from targeted public and private investment makes it harder to address the very barriers that contribute to a less accurate census,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant on census and statistical issues and former congressional staffer overseeing census matters.

The Census Bureau and the White House declined to comment for this story.

The Bureau is nearing the end of the 2020 edition of the decennial count, which will guide the allocation of $1.5 trillion a year in federal aid. The census is also a linchpin of American democracy because the population counts are used to determine the number of Congressional representatives assigned to a state and to draw maps of electoral districts.

Some of the hardest-to-count regions in the last census might be even harder to survey this year as the country reels from the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Reuters analysis of Census data. They include border areas in Texas, the lowlands of Mississippi and the northern plains of New Mexico.

‘I ALWAYS RELAPSE’

Rio Arriba officials estimated they were undercounted by 4% in 2010, after only 42% of households mailed back their census forms voluntarily. That compared to 66.5% of households that responded by mail nationally, according to Census data.

The bureau sent door-knockers to get more responses, but still had to use a Census process called imputation to estimate residency for 9.6% of Rio Arriba’s count, a far larger proportion than the national average.

Officials in the county say an accurate count would have helped narrow funding gaps that leave it without enough medicine, detox clinics, housing and other support to fight one of the community’s biggest problems: an opioid epidemic that kills people at a rate more than four times the U.S. average, according to government data.

The current U.S. Census shows no signs of reversing the trend. Rio Arriba’s voluntary response rate is running at 32%, 10 points below its 2010 rate and less than half the overall U.S. rate of 67%.

It is impossible to know exactly how much funding is lost due to an undercount, says George Washington University professor Andrew Reamer, the nation’s foremost expert on the relationship between the census and federal spending. That would require knowing exactly how many people were missed and which government programs would have served them.

Officials in Rio Arriba agree they were entitled to more federal funds for programs to address a local opioid crisis.

“A lot of the funding for my department is federal, so we end up being entitled to a lot less than we should when there’s an undercount,” said Reichelt.

The $3.4 million her department received in 2020 to fight addiction is spread thin, and even a relatively modest increase could make a big difference. The county can’t afford to build a detox center, and patients wait for weeks to get suboxone, a drug that reduces withdrawal symptoms, Reichelt said.

The Rio Arriba County Housing Authority, meanwhile, manages 54 public housing units, and assists another 25 families with rent vouchers. But the wait lists can be as long as five years, according to Reichelt.

Joey Garcia, a 32-year-old heroin addict who has been in and out of jail on drug charges, said he has struggled to get straight while on waiting lists for both subsidized housing and suboxone treatment.

“Somehow,” Garcia said, “I always relapse.”

NERVOUS TO ANSWER

The Rio Grande Valley in south Texas is a political netherworld. North of the border but south of immigration checkpoints, its four counties – Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy – include informal communities known as colonias, often heavily populated with undocumented immigrants.

In Hidalgo, officials estimate they were undercounted by at least 10% in 2010, after just 56% of the population responded voluntarily. The Census Bureau estimated a more modest 5.4% undercount.

Either way, the undercounts reduced funding to the area’s Head Start and Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) programs, which cover only a fraction of eligible residents.

In Pueblo de Palmas, a colonia in Hidalgo County, Cristina, 35, qualifies for government-funded Head Start childcare for her four children, but only one was admitted. She asked that only her first name be used because she is an undocumented immigrant.

Both LIHEAP and Head Start are underfunded in the county. The former has a budget of $6 million, enough to serve 3-4% of qualifying households, says Jaime Longoria, the region’s community services director.

Head Start, which relies on population data to decide where to expand programs, can serve 3,700 kids in Hidalgo out of 22,000 who qualify, said Teresa Flores, the local Head Start director. An accurate count would help cover some of that gap, she said.

Cristina and her neighbor, Maria – also undocumented – both said they couldn’t remember filling out a census form in 2010 and that they were afraid to do so this year.

“I’m nervous someone will come to my house and take me away,” Maria said.

‘WE’RE BROKE’

In central Mississippi, voluntary participation in the 2010 census ranged between 45% and 60%. The rate in these areas so far this year is similar, according to Census data.

Lower funding from census undercounts has affected a crucial childcare program for low-income mothers in the nation’s poorest state, program officials said.

More than 112,000 Mississippi families are poor enough to qualify, but the program only has enough money to grant 20,000 to 25,000 vouchers, said Carol Burnett, who runs the nonprofit Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative.

Mississippi’s allotment under the Child Care and Development Block Grant that funds the program was $91.8 million in fiscal year 2019. An extra 1% of that total statewide – about $918,000 – could potentially serve hundreds more parents across the state, Burnett said, as the vouchers cover around $5,700 a year in expenses.

Tanisha Womack, 35, runs three daycare centers in Simpson and Smith counties, two of several counties in Mississippi that were among the hardest to count nationwide in 2010, according to the Reuters data.

Womack is certified to care for 152 children, but has just 72 children enrolled, she said, because many qualifying parents have been denied vouchers.

“We’re broke,” Womack said.

(Reporting by Nick Brown; Additional reporting by Grant Smith; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)

Coronavirus child care pinch in U.S. poses threat to economic gains of working women

By Jonnelle Marte and Rachel Dissell

CLEVELAND (Reuters) – Most days, Zora Pannell works from her dining room table, sitting in front of her computer, turning off the video on Zoom calls to nurse her one-year-old daughter, Savannah.

Pannell has balanced working from home and caring for her daughter and son Timothy, aged 2, since March when she started a new job as a manager for a language services company the same week that Ohio issued a “stay at home” order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Working from home is an exhausting daily juggle but she’s more worried about being told it’s time to return to the office. Her husband cannot watch the children during the day because he has a job at a local steel mill and the couple have been unable to find a daycare center they deemed safe and affordable close to their Shaker Heights apartment on the eastern fringe of Cleveland.

“I’ve already felt penalized for being a working mother,” said Pannell, 30, who is worried she would have to quit if she is not allowed to keep working from home. “Now it’s like I’m in purgatory.”

The pandemic upended child care plans for many parents in the United States, forcing them – particularly mothers – to grapple with tough choices that are only becoming more difficult as states push return-to-work policies to try to revive the battered economy.

Do they hunt for expensive and hard-to-find child care that could expose their families to COVID-19, which is still raging across much of the country? Or do they scale back on work, or even quit, threatening their financial stability?

The barriers risk stalling or reversing the economic gains of recent years made by working women, who are more likely to take a career hit than men when they are unable to find child care, studies show.

A survey by Northeastern University between May 10-June 22 found that 13% of working parents had to resign or reduce their work hours because of a lack of child care during the health crisis, with women impacted significantly more than men. In all, of those who said they had lost a job due to child care problems, 60% were women, the survey found.

“If women don’t have child care, they can’t go back to work,” said Karen Schulman, Child Care and Early Learning Research Director for the National Women’s Law Center. If that doesn’t happen, “you end up creating a system that is going to result in vast gender inequities”.

Prior to the pandemic, the labor force participation rate for women aged 25-54 touched 77% in February, rising from 73% in September 2015 and close to the peak reached in 2000, when the share of women in the labor force began to plateau, in part because of challenges accessing affordable child care, experts say.

LIMITED OPTIONS

Pressure looks certain to mount on families in the coming weeks, as various aid programs and protections that offered relief to jobless parents expire, including enhanced unemployment benefits, eviction moratoriums and a freeze on student loan payments.

“There’s this fragile, invisible thread holding the lives of our moms, holding the lives of our economy together,” said Chastity Lord, president and chief executive of the Jeremiah Program, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that supports single mothers and their children.

Finding a way to broaden access to child care will be pivotal to helping the U.S. labor market heal from the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, with latest data showing the economy contracting an annualized 32.9% in the second quarter of 2020 and approximately one out of five workers claiming unemployment insurance in the week ending July 11.

Child care was already scarce before the coronavirus led to the shuttering of thousands of centers. More than half of all Americans lived in a child care “desert” as of 2018, defined by the Center for American Progress, a liberal nonprofit group in Washington, as an area with no licensed child care providers or less than one slot for every three children under five.

Now, in many states, care centers accept only limited numbers of children to prevent the virus from spreading. Additionally, families that relied on grandparents or other older relatives or neighbors must weigh up the risks of asking for their help again and perhaps exposing them to a disease that has proved especially deadly for the elderly.

Chantel Springer, 24, worked at Starbucks in Manhattan during the early months of the pandemic but has been on furlough since June, when the store cut back on staff to adjust to lower demand and social distancing requirements. Now that her unemployment benefits could shrink as low as $325 a week, Springer is making arrangements to get back to her job as a shift manager.

“I feel like I have to work,” said Springer, explaining that the reduced benefits would not be enough to cover the rent, food, diapers and other costs.

This month, Springer transferred to a store in Brooklyn so she could be closer to her apartment and her two-year-old. But finding someone to babysit her son is a challenge. Springer can no longer leave the toddler with her mother, who recently moved to take care of a disabled sister whose husband died from Covid-19. For now, she is looking to coordinate schedules with her son’s father, who has also returned to work at a retail store.

HOME ALONE

Under the CARES Act passed in late March, parents who lost access to child care because of the pandemic became eligible for unemployment benefits. But the process of qualifying for the program, which varies from state to state, became less clear cut as the school year ended and some day care centers began to re-open with limited capacity.

The Labor Department sought to clarify with guidance that parents should resort to their typical summer child care plans.

Many states, including New York, Missouri and Louisiana, allow parents to self-certify each week, under penalty of perjury, that their child care center was closed and that they met the requirements to continue receiving benefits. Other states, like California and Texas, make such decisions on a “case-by-case” basis.

While child care places are hard to find for toddlers, they are even scarcer for school-age children and many summer programs for this age-group went online, leaving parents facing a quandary.

Sarah Sapp is hatching plans to rig up an old cell phone for her 11-year-old son, Avery.

The 37-year-old waitress from North Olmsted, a western suburb of Cleveland, fears her son, who sometimes struggles to pay attention to instructions, isn’t quite mature enough to be left home alone while she serves food and drinks at a high-end tavern. But she feels she has little choice.

When Ohio initially ordered restaurants and bars to close in March, Sapp qualified for state unemployment. But when the state told people it was safe to return to work in May, she was informed that she would no longer be eligible. Sapp tried to sign her son up for a day camp at her local recreation center but it got canceled.

More problems are piling up on the horizon. Sapp’s school district has told parents they must choose between all online lessons or a hybrid of two days shortened days in school and three days at home when classes resume in September. Neither of these options would allow her to work her lunchtime shift.

“I feel stuck,” Sapp said. “There doesn’t seem to be a right choice no matter how I look at things.”

(Rachel Dissell is a contributing reporter with The Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that impact women.; Jonnelle Marte reported for this story from New York; Editing by Heather Timmons and Crispian Balmer)

Daycare costs harder to afford than college for many; Nation’s fertility rate hits record low

A schoolteacher, who wished to stay unidentified, attempts to catch snowflakes while leading her students to a library from school in the Harlem neighborhood, located in the Manhattan borough of New York on January 10, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

By Gail MarksJarvis

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Americans are not having enough babies.

The nation’s fertility rate hit a record low in 2017, and one has to wonder: Could the cost of raising children be discouraging a generation that was choked by the Great Recession?

Employment is strong, but pay has been stagnant. College student loans average $35,000, and renting or buying a home is unaffordable in most metro areas. Throw daycare costs of $10,000 a child into the mix, and families ask themselves: How can they afford a baby?

Childcare is the third-largest expense in the family budget, behind food and housing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which calculated last year that middle class families spend $233,610 raising a child to the age of 18.

“Daycare is a crisis and a much bigger problem than college,” says Betsey Stevenson, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, who wonders why there is not a massive public outcry for relief.

Both presidential candidates raised the issue in the last campaign, and Congress then doubled the child tax credit to $2,000.

But there has been no daycare legislation. Rather than organizing politically, it appears that 20- and 30-somethings are voting with their reproductive systems.

The only age group with a rising fertility rate in 2017 was women 40 to 44 years old, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In addition, 20 percent of parents in a Care.com survey said they would have fewer children than they wanted because of childcare costs.

Lisa Anderson, 30, is among the stressed-out mothers. She commutes daily from a rural home to work at her government consulting job in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, devoting a quarter of her family income to her 10-month-old son’s daycare.

She worries how she and her husband will afford a second child. Daycare for one baby costs close to $10,000; with two, it would total half of the couple’s take-home income.

With about $1,000 in monthly student loan payments, “I’m starting to regret what I spent on graduate school,” Anderson said. But she and others in her generation cannot undo past decisions, they can only control when and if they’ll have children.

BIG COSTS

For working parents, daycare costs are rising at almost twice the nation’s inflation rate since the recession.

Government guidelines suggest a ratio of 10 percent of income for childcare. But the median family with children under six earned $68,808 in 2016, about $20,000 short of making the median $8,320 annual daycare cost affordable, according to a Brookings Institute analysis of Census data.

Infant care at $10,400 is harsher, and the quality daycare preferred by people with incomes over $150,000 costs $11,652, according to Brookings analyst Grover Whitehurst. In expensive areas of the country, that goes up to $18,000 per child.

Nannies are even more costly – averaging about $28,905 a year nationally, according to Care.com. As a result, only about 4 percent of families use them, according to Census data.

Most parents have limited options for cutting costs other than drawing on help from family, sharing caregivers, compromising quality and having fewer children.

Some states offer subsidies, but most go to low-income people. Families get a little tax relief if they claim the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit at tax time or use a flexible spending account at work to stash money away for childcare on a pre-tax basis.

Financial planners calm parents by telling them they can catch up with retirement and college saving after their children enter school.

But Rachel Brewer, a San Diego mother of three children between seven and nine, questions that. “Kids were the cheapest when babies. I spent $5 for a can of formula. Now, I sweat bullets every time I take the kids to the dentist,” she said.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Dan Grebler)