Four in 10 Americans sometimes face what economists call “material hardship,” struggling to pay for basic needs such as food and housing, according to a new study from the Urban Institute. Even middle-class families routinely struggle financially and are occasionally unable to pay their bills.
The finding is striking given the U.S. has experienced a decade of economic growth in the decade since the recession ended. The unemployment rate is at its lowest in half a century, and the stock market has enjoyed a decade-long bull run. But for many Americans, incomes haven’t kept up with the rising cost of necessities such as housing and health care, resulting in financial anxiety.
About 39 percent of Americans ages 18 to 65 experienced at least one type of material hardship last year, statistically unchanged from the 39.3 percent who suffered hardship in 2017, the nonpartisan think tank found. The study spans the first two years of the Trump administration, as well as the first year of the tax overhaul. Yet there was little progress easing the financial challenges experienced by U.S. adults last year, the Urban Institute said.
“The modest declines in hardship during the current favorable economic environment suggest further progress will require additional policies to raise and stabilize incomes, offset the cost of essential expenses and protect families against adverse financial shocks,” the study noted.
The Urban Institute started tracking material hardship in 2017 ahead of proposed cutbacks in federal safety-net programs, such as proposals to add work requirements to food stamps and Medicaid. Some U.S. states have already moved forward with such plans, such as Maine’s work requirement for its food stamp recipients.
The think tank is revisiting the survey each year to measure changes in how American families are are faring financially. The study surveyed more than 7,500 adults about whether they had trouble paying for housing, utilities, food or health care.