Before the pandemic, Rebekah Cay and her husband never had difficulty supporting their family of five. A fourth-generation Tampa native, she runs a pet care business, while her husband works full time in the trucking industry. They have three children — now 16, 11 and 10.
But when travel halted in 2020, Cay’s business took a hit. Normally booked months in advance, she said she had to refund around $6,000 to clients who canceled their plans. One of the family’s cars got repossessed. Their credit cards were maxed out.
“I didn’t think we were going to make it,” she said.
Their finances have improved since then, but not enough. Seated inside the food pantry at Temple Terrace Elementary School, Cay recounted their $400 monthly car insurance payment and the rising cost of groceries. In August, after buying all of her children’s back-to-school supplies, her family needed assistance from a local agency to pay $1,000 of their rent.
“My income is back, and we’re struggling more, just because of the cost of living,” she said.
Cay has come to rely on the school pantry during months when business is slower and her family’s take-home pay is reduced drastically. She’s not alone: Faith Smith, the school’s parent liaison, said the pantry serves a constantly growing population. A couple of weeks ago, 107 families visited in a single day.
Poverty is on the rise across the nation, according to recent data from the U.S. Census. That is especially true for families with children: The child poverty rate more than doubled from 2021 to 2022, rising from 5.2% to 12.4%.
The latest census figures reflect both the end of pandemic-era measures that drastically reduced poverty, as well as the cost of living rising at a breakneck pace.
In Tampa Bay, the reality for struggling families like Cay’s is especially palpable, advocates say. Fueled by exponential population growth, the region has experienced some of the highest increases in housing costs, along with inflation of essentials like food and gas.
“Before, if the kids were to ask me for something, and I was to say, ‘no,’ it was because they didn’t necessarily need it. It wasn’t a money issue,” Cay said. “Now it’s ‘no, I can’t afford it.’ That seems to be my answer, constantly, to my kids right now.”
The latest data is from the census’ Supplemental Poverty Measure, an adjusted poverty calculation that accounts for the effects of subsidies and other government programs designed to assist low-income families, and subtracts necessary expenses like taxes and medical expenses. It is considered more accurate than the official poverty measure, which only considers income.
Experts attribute the national spike to the end of pandemic stimulus payments and tax credit extensions enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan. Most significantly, the Child Tax Credit was expanded to provide $3,000 per child for children over 6, and $3,600 for younger children. The expansion expired at the end of 2021.
“At the time when these tax credits came out, we were all grasping at straws,” said Aaron Neal, senior data manager at United Way Suncoast. “It felt like a drop in the bucket due to how much chaos was already going around. But once they were gone, that could be immediately felt.”
The loss of the additional tax credit, Neal said, “increased the cost of having a stable home, or the cost of even being able to even survive in the Tampa Bay region, obviously in the wrong direction.”
A two-adult, two-child family now needs $77,000 a year in order to survive in Hillsborough County, Neal said. By contrast, the median income for the county is just over $64,000.
Experts have noted the end of the pandemic tax credits means the latest figures are simply a return to pre-pandemic levels, after the historically low poverty rate in 2021. The child poverty rate was 12.6% in 2019.
“It speaks a lot to the idea that we’ve normalized outsized child poverty and unnecessary lack of resources for children and the under-funding of supports for them — direct supports to families as well as other social services,” said Holly Bullard, chief strategy and development officer at the Florida Policy Institute.
Florida has consistently ranked poorly when it comes to poverty, which Bullard attributes to underinvestment in programs that “reduce barriers to prosperity,” including higher education, tax rebates and child care resources.
“Even with the end of ARPA, we’ve proven there’s a need, outside of pandemics,” she said. “Florida is just heightened because of our cost-of-living shifts.”
Thomas Mantz, CEO of Feeding Tampa, said he noticed an increase in clients of the food bank once the federal tax credits expired. But the situation was dire even with the pandemic measures. Feeding Tampa is serving more people than it did for much of the crisis. Most of them are working families who simply can’t keep up with rising costs.
“There is a greater sense of despair and concern about their ability to take care of their responsibilities,” he said. “I feel like there’s far greater pressure now than there ever has been.”
The census data also showed uncommonly low levels of people lacking health coverage last year — which reflects the fact no one was dropped from Medicaid during 2022, another pandemic-era protection.
Census data for 2023, which may reflect the effects of Medicaid disenrollment in the last year, won’t be available until 2024.
Katie Roders Turner, executive director at the Family Healthcare Foundation, said her organization is getting more requests from families who had continuous coverage the last two years but have now lost access to Medicaid. She predicted the change in health care access will likely have implications for those experiencing poverty, as well.
“Things like that really will have a huge impact on a family’s ability to not only prevent poverty,” she said. “Are they going to be making decisions about paying for a prescription drug or putting food on the table?”
In the meantime, Cay said her family is considering a move to a less expensive locale. The prospect of leaving a place that holds so much personal and family history is sad, she said, but it no longer feels like an option.
“One way or another,” she said, “It’s going to have to happen.”
The Tampa Bay Times has a team of reporters focusing on rising costs in our region. If you have an idea, question or story to tell, please email us at email@example.com.
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