As a teacher, I know that this time of year brings excitement at school around Halloween, upcoming holidays and playing outside in beautiful cooler temperatures. But with all that also comes the understanding that for many kids in our area, the anticipation over those wonderful things is often overshadowed by the reality of their daily lives.
In the St. Louis metro area, we have a housing crisis that is closely tied to food insecurity and poverty. Incomes for many families are not keeping up with the rise in home and rent prices. Since 1960, renters’ median earnings have lagged far behind the annual increase in rental rates. In Missouri, there are only 42 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low-income renter households (households whose incomes are below the federal poverty level or below 30% of area median income, whichever is higher). However, because of inadequate funding, only 1 in 4 eligible households can get rental-housing assistance. Having to use so much income to cover housing costs leaves little money for anything else like food, transportation and clothing.
This housing crisis especially hurts our children. I care deeply about my students and their ability to learn. I know that when I have students who don’t know when or where they will eat or sleep next, their performance in school suffers.
This year, I was inviting my students to tell us something about themselves using a show-and-tell exercise. One student showed us his sweet and sour Ice Breakers candy and told us that he was savoring them a tiny bit at a time because he wasn’t sure when he might get another box. He told us he had moved around a lot with his family trying to find an affordable place to live and had been to many different schools.
As a result, his academics have suffered, and he is behind his peers. Staying in his current home means that most of the income from both of his parents’ jobs is going toward rent. He often misses school to help babysit his brother because of a lack of affordable child care options and no parental sick leave at his parents’ jobs. And, of course, there is little money for tiny treats or even a toy for his 4-year-old brother, hence his savoring his candy in class.
His story is not unusual. I know some of my students come to my school exhausted from hiding from gunshots in the bathtub all night. They might even miss the bus to get to school because they are hiding. The parents of these children wish they could move away from the violence of their neighborhood, but they simply can’t afford to do so. These are hardworking Americans working full-time jobs who are not able to have safe housing options in our city.
Finding affordable housing is a complicated problem, but there are ideas that can help. One of them is the renters’ tax credit. Right now, we spend tens of billions of dollars each year on tax credits for homeowners. Yet renters, who account for an increasing portion of the housing market, get nothing.
A renters’ tax credit would help families paying over 30% of their household income on rent, entitling them to a tax refund for any amount over that threshold up to the local fair market rent. This would free up more household income for food, child care, gas, and the other things needed to make life livable. If Congress can pass tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations, they could also do something to help those working to make ends meet. A renters’ tax credit would help millions of people in this country, especially in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
When our kids are in school, they should be thinking about school — not worrying about where they will sleep that night. I urge our members of Congress to support a renters tax credit and work to get it passed to enable families in St. Louis and around the country to provide a safe and stable home for their children.
Sarah Miller is a teacher in the St. Louis area and a local volunteer affiliated with the anti-poverty organization Results.