Mother with children

Across all U.S. counties, on average, a family with two children spends 25% of its income on child care--more than three times the amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo: MoMo Productions/Getty Images)

Universal Policies Key to Economic and Social Recovery: Report

"As we look to recover, we have opportunities to imagine what is possible and rebuild in ways that work for everyone."

An analysis of Americans' wellbeing across every county in the U.S. showed Wednesday that "economic security is out of reach for many" due to chronically low wages, the high cost of child care, and pay inequity--and calls on lawmakers to ensure the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic corrects "glaring structural failures related to economic security and family support."

The annual report by County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a project created by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, revealed the wide gap between the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour--and even the highest state minimum wages of around $15 per hour--and what households actually need to make ends meet as they face rising rents, grocery bills, and other expenses.

"Across U.S. counties, the average living wage is $35.80 an hour for a household with one adult and two children," reads the 2022 County Health Rankings report. "Depending on location, the living wage dips to a minimum of $29.81 an hour and rises to a high of $65.45 an hour."

"We can expect more of the same if we do nothing. And the same is not fair."

That means that in nearly all U.S. counties, the average worker raising two children would need an average wage increase of 73% to earn a living wage.

In some counties, a raise of 229% would be needed.

"We can expect more of the same if we do nothing," Sheri Johnson, co-director of County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, toldABC News. "And the same is not fair. It's not just, and it's not necessary."

Households' struggles to afford essential expenses are being compounded by a child care crisis in virtually every county in the United States, the report found. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that households spend no more than 7% of their income on child care, but "there are no counties where child care cost for two children is at or below the 7% benchmark," according to the report.

Across all counties, on average, a family with two children spends 25% of its income on child care, with urban families facing the biggest financial burden.

For many of the lowest-wage workers earning $7.25 per hour, child care is essentially not a possible expense, as "the average cost of childcare across U.S. counties for two children is more than 90% of their annual income." And for the average person working in the child care industry, finding care for their own children "would consume more than half their average $25,460 annual income."

"We all benefit when the childcare system is healthy and well," County Health Rankings & Roadmaps tweeted.

The report underscores the fact that President Joe Biden's domestic agenda--the Build Back Better Act, which passed in the U.S. House last year but has been obstructed in the Senate by Republicans and right-wing Democrats--contained provisions to secure a recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic that includes all Americans.

"We can ensure economic security and respect people's dignity with strategies that reduce income inequality and recognize the value of all work by paying a living wage, supplementing income, and ensuring equal pay for equal work through policies such as paid family leave, paid sick leave, universal basic income, living wage laws, Child Tax Credit expansion, and the Earned Income Tax Credit," the report said.

The expanded Child Tax Credit, which was sent to tens of millions of people every month in the second half of 2021, temporarily slashed childhood poverty by 30% before it lapsed in January following Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) refusal to include it in the Build Back Better Act. Families reported using the monthly payments of up to $300 per child to pay for child care, food, rent and mortgage payments, and other essentials.

"As we look to recover, we have opportunities to imagine what is possible and rebuild in ways that work for everyone," County Health Rankings & Roadmaps said. "We can create fair economic systems and address past harms to ensure that we are a nation where we all thrive. Advancing a just recovery requires action."

In addition to addressing the living wage and child care crises, said the organization, the federal government can improve the wellbeing of Americans across U.S. counties by closing the gender pay gap.

"Women earn little more than 80 cents on the dollar men earn, and by comparison, the earnings for women living in rural areas and women of color remain among the lowest," the report said. "To earn the $61,807 average annual salary of a white man, women of all races and ethnicities must work several more days, if not months, into the following year. An economy that truly works for everyone includes equal pay in living wage jobs and work-family supports such as paid sick leave and paid family leave."

"Equal pay is not just a women's issue," added County Health Rankings & Roadmaps in a press statement, explaining that pay inequity has community impacts:

Building economic security is imperative for health, yet pay inequity and lost earnings due to the wage gap have dire consequences for women and their families resulting in fewer opportunities to make ends meet, let alone save for emergencies or retirement. The pay gap sheds light on the systemic undervaluing of women's contributions to the workforce and economy. Equal pay can be part of a recovery that begins to reverse these trends and center fairness and opportunity for all.

The group also called for lawmakers to address public school funding deficits that plague half of all counties in the U.S., with districts needing to spend more than $3,000 more per student annually.

Rural counties and large urban areas suffer the most from school funding deficits, which "correlate with students performing below their grade level for reading."

"Working together, we can transform public goods such as affordable and accessible childcare, quality public schools, and jobs that treat people with the dignity they deserve and the wages that will support their families," said Marjory Givens, co-director of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. "This would not only ensure a just recovery from the pandemic for families and communities today but greater economic security, better health and well-being for generations to come."

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