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Stuck in a hellish loop: ALICE parents explain how they never have enough money to give their kids the life they want

Noah Sheidlower,Juliana Kaplan   

Stuck in a hellish loop: ALICE parents explain how they never have enough money to give their kids the life they want
  • BI talked to seven parents who said they're making sacrifices so their children can eat.
  • Some said they can't invest in their kids' college funds or extracurricular activities.

Ryan Arbuckle, 36, makes too much money to be eligible for government aid to support his five children but can barely afford to put food on the table.

Arbuckle dropped out of college, had kids at a young age, and spent years toiling away at a minimum-wage job. Then Covid hit, and he had to declare bankruptcy as he looked for a new job.

After his divorce a few years ago, Arbuckle, who lives near St. Louis, now cares for his kids three to four days a week in between his new IT job that pays $45,000 a year.

While he has just enough to pay for food and shelter, he fears he'll never earn enough to pay for his kids' extracurricular activities. Car payments, cable, insurance, and phone bills eat up $870 a month from the net $3,000 he makes, he said. He buys the cheapest toiletries and groceries he can find, and he can't afford mental health resources.

He wishes he could be a better father to his kids; his father used to take him to baseball games, airshows, and other fun things he can't afford.

Arbuckle is an ALICE: He's asset-limited, income-constrained, but employed. And he's not alone: According to United For ALICE, 29% of Americans fall into the gap between the poverty line and being able to actually thrive. It's worse for parents; 37% of families with kids in the US fall below the ALICE threshold, and more than half of single-parent families do.

"The most obvious thing is children are expensive, hands down," Stephanie Hoopes, national director at United For ALICE, told BI. "It's a group that's got a big challenge."

Per data released Tuesday by the Federal Reserve, just 64% of parents living with children under 18 said they were doing OK financially in 2023. This compares to 72% of all respondents — and 75% of nonparents.

Many parents have become wedged in the cracks of the country's safety net and are facing a near-impossible calculus: How can they deliver a stable economic life for their kids when the country's guardrails aren't protecting them?

"You have people like me and thousands of families out there who cannot afford basic necessities and happiness in life. You're not giving us a defined path to go out and achieve our goals as a family," Arbuckle said.

$50,000 for a family of 4 in Georgia

Kristin Musselwhite, 36, and her husband William, 41, raise two boys with special needs in a small Georgia town. For about six months, both of them were out of work.

"We haven't caught up yet, so every paycheck hits, and then it's gone," Kristin said. "If we get groceries or anything not absolutely necessary, it's a good week."

William landed a job in production making $50,000 a year — so much that the family lost food stamps. They have $75 a week for groceries. Due to the cost of childcare, Kristin decided it makes more financial sense to stay home to take care of her kids full-time. Childcare costs remain an immense burden for Americans across the income spectrum, and it's a cost that particularly weighs on ALICE parents.

"It's impossible at times, trying to be an advocate for your child when you don't have the income to be an advocate in the right place," Kristin said, noting she's striving to get enough money for a vacation with her kids.

The Musselwhites are working with their mortgage company to make up missed payments of $1,400 a month and are consolidating debt. They can't fix their truck, which was totaled last December, while also making payments on another car. They can't afford proper mental health and medical treatments, which are few and far between in their rural community.

Retirement has never been a thought; they planning on working until the day of their funerals. Still, Kristin is hopeful that things will improve for her family as her kids grow older and her husband works his way up the ladder.

$40,000 for a family of three in Pennsylvania

Joey Lovello, 42, is also walking a precarious tightrope. He lives with his girlfriend, Beki, and her 10-year-old son in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Finding the money to cover all of their basic needs has been challenging.

Beki and Joey were laid off at the start of the pandemic. They started a cleaning company, work another cleaning job, and drive for Uber Eats, working five or six days a week. But they make just under $40,000 — slightly too much to qualify for assistance.

"I know the world and life doesn't owe anybody anything, but it is hard to keep the splinter of being betrayed or lied to out of one's thoughts when trying just to make ends meet," Joey said. "I'm always asking, 'Where did I go wrong?'"

Since 2020, their rent has skyrocketed to over $2,000, not including fees for late payments. They're constantly under the threat of eviction for missing payments, and they're forced to rotate paying their various bills each month. In the past two years, their car was repossessed twice, their electricity shut off, and Beki limited her asthma medication due to the cost.

"We live in constant fear, in a carousel of doom and anxiety. Checking the mail each day garners more stress than a person should be under every single day," Joey said. "The strain we live under has been visibly eroding our physical and mental health. A worry-free, good night's sleep is a thing of the past."

$130,000 for a family of 7 in Illinois

Even parents at the upper bound of the ALICE threshold are just scraping by.

April Schultz, 40, and her husband Kevin, 45, earn a gross combined income of $130,000 — slightly above the ALICE threshold — but can't afford to spend $200 a week on groceries for their family of seven. They work two jobs each in addition to caring for their five kids, but they're breaking even at the end of every month.

"We shouldn't have to have four jobs in one family," April said. "I feel like that's crazy when, in 2017, we had one income and we were doing just fine."

Stuck in a 'hellish loop'

ALICE parents often decide between what they can and can't go without. John S., a 49-year-old parent of two, said his family struggles to make ends meet on his $70,000-a-year salary. He sometimes goes to food banks and said there's nowhere they can cut the fat to reel in their budget. Sometimes, he said, he and his wife don't eat as much so their kids can have enough to eat — a fact they conceal from their children.

At the same time, though, they're ineligible for most public assistance.

"To be honest, if we have a dollar to our name at the end of the month, we're both happy," John said.

Even when ALICE parents can obtain assistance, it's often not enough to account for the realities they face.

Katelynn W., 29, said she is the primary support for herself and her two children with disabilities, working overtime as a general production associate.

She makes about $45,600 annually and qualified for Medicaid and food stamps, which cover about 1.5 weeks of dinners per month. But based on annual income limits, she fears she'll no longer be eligible for assistance in the coming months.

The Dover, Delaware, resident said she frequently struggles to balance her income with expenses. She often sacrifices or cuts back on things, sets up payment arrangements for bills, and makes late payments. She, her partner, and his mother have been homeless since January and have lived in hotel rooms and their vehicles — her largest expenses.

"I often feel extremely frustrated, stressed and very hopeless, like I'm working life away to not move any closer to financial stability," Katelynn said. "It feels overly difficult to constantly afford basic things like housing, transportation, food for the month, and personal hygiene. It also feels impossible to ever be a homeowner, obtain higher education, or have any financial cushion."

To afford a two-to-three-bedroom rental in her area, she'd need a deposit between $5,400 and $7,400 — the equivalent of saving every penny of her income for two months. She sacrifices meals, clean laundry, and personal hygiene so that her kids can feel as safe and happy as possible.

"My inability to afford necessities on my income alone is absolutely not due to any kind of laziness or unwillingness to work," she said.

Many ALICEs find themselves in a neverending cycle, even as parents aspire for more for both themselves and their kids.

"Are we all stuck in a hellish Sisyphean loop of debt and repayment?" Joey Lovello said. "Having to decide whether to keep the lights on, getting four badly needed tires for a rolling death trap, or getting a migraine-inducing broken molar fixed?"

Do you live above the federal poverty line but struggle to afford daily expenses? Are you open to sharing your story? If so, reach out to these reporters at and

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