UNLV study traces links between unaffordable housing and child mistreatment
Camalot Todd/Neveda Current
A single mother in Nevada makes $10.50 per hour on minimum wage, or about $21,840.00 a year if she works full time.
And then there’s the rent.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Las Vegas is by one estimate $1,372, and for a two-bedroom, $1,622 – $16,464 or $19,464 annually. Even at hourly wages two or three dollars higher than the minimum wage, after rent very little would be left over each month for groceries, transportation, child care, school clothes and other expenses.
Affordable housing can help reduce childhood psychological and physical mistreatment, according to a new study through the UNLV School of Social Work released last week which focused on single moms with children who are at least 5 years old.
“What I suspect is happening, and there is support for this, is that mothers are sacrificing their needs so that their kids are taken care of,” said Katherine Marcal, the UNLV social work professor who published the study, which draws on pre-pandemic data. “Moms will forgo food so that the kids can eat. The kids will be food secure.”
About 81.5% of “extremely low-income Nevadans pay more than half of their income on rent” and the Las Vegas metropolitan area ranks first for the “most severe” affordable-housing shortages among the 50 largest cities in the nation, according to research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2022 report.
The stress of poverty, lack of resources like childcare, and racial biases in state surveillance connected to public assistance programs collide with an increased likelihood for physical and psychological abuse for children, Marcal said.
“Child abuse isn’t the result of bad people becoming bad parents, which is often the assumption,” she said.
Marcal’s study assessed physical assault, psychological aggression, neglect and other child maltreatment behaviors.
Neglect is often associated with poverty, so Marcal was surprised to find that unstable housing did not correlate with a higher risk of neglect.
But the impact of stress and poverty and self-sacrificing their basic needs can push mothers to exasperation.
“Parenting under the best of circumstances is very, very hard, and being unable to afford your basic needs or your child’s basic needs makes it exponentially harder,” she said. “The mental strain and chaos of wondering ‘am I going to be able to pay my rent next month?’ is uniquely stressful for people.”
For many in the state, that strain is only getting worse.
Months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic started, Nevada had the highest unemployment rate nationally — and struggled with it for well over a year later. Then, intensified by supply shortages and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation began hammering working families. Housing costs surged and most wages did not rise as quickly as prices, with seven out of 10 of the most common jobs in Las Vegas not paying enough for workers to afford a studio apartment.
“Our wages particularly on the low-end of the earning spectrum are just not keeping up with inflation or the housing costs, so naturally we are seeing this worsening of affordable housing, the ability for low-income families to even break into the housing market,” Marcal said.
While Marcal notes that people on the ground, from homeless advocates to social workers for the child welfare system, are doing great work, an effective change will hinge on public policy choices.
Zoning reforms to allow more affordable housing, ensuring evictions do not stay on an individual’s record for a long time so they can get approved for a lease, and caps on rent increases are just some ways that could level the playing field, said Marcal.
“Some of the things we need done are just too big for local advocates and nonprofit workers. We need high-level structural policy change,” Marcal said. “It’s the same, old boring reason we see in regards to all our other social problems, there’s not a (political) will.”