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Back-to-school stress is amplified by inflation affecting the cost of supplies


For millions of children across America, August means back to school. And for families, that also means getting new school supplies - notebooks, backpacks, calculators - all of these expenses can add up. And with household budgets already stretched by high inflation, back-to-school shopping can be a struggle. One of those parents trying to manage all these costs is Tomicia Gray. She's a mother of two students and joins us now from Charlotte, NC. Welcome.

TOMICIA GRAY: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So tell me about your kids first. What grades are they in?

GRAY: Yes, I have a 10th grader. She's 15 years old. And I also have a 13-year-old. He's now in the 8th grade. So this is his last year of middle school.

RASCOE: OK. So those are older kids. And I feel like with older kids, a lot of times, some of their school supplies can be more. You got to buy, like, T-85 calculators? That's what we used to have to get.

GRAY: Yes. We're talking about $100 for a calculator that these kids must have. School supplies alone is expensive. We're talking about several notebooks, several packs of paper, pencils, pens, markers for some things, then, of course, masks, disinfecting wipes, Kleenex, disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer - things like that.

RASCOE: So how are you making ends meet? I understand that you lost your job during the pandemic. Like, how are things going for you now?

GRAY: Yes, I did. I'm a certified nursing assistant. I've been that for ten years now. And, oh, I tell you, I lost my job. We were literally down to my income at that time. I was, you know, engaged to be married. I was in a relationship. So it just was - it was rough. Now, I am a single mom and had to start all over at the age of 34 with two teenagers - and can eat you out of a house and a home. You know, I'm not just worried about school supplies. I'm also worried about school clothes alone. My son - he's a basketball player. So, of course, he's going to want nice shoes. And then my daughter, again, she's in high school, so she's going to want nice shoes, too.

RASCOE: Are you able to get them the clothes and the shoes that they want?

GRAY: Honestly, no, I'm not. I'm reaching out right now to churches that could possibly help when it comes to, you know, donations in that area. I had now just picked up a shift because it's getting a little bit better when it comes to going back into work into the field. But I'm also a full-time Lyft driver, too. So I have to work two jobs right now.

RASCOE: Are you worried about having to sacrifice other areas of your budget to make things work?

GRAY: To make ends meet? Yes. Yes, absolutely. I don't want to do that. You know, as a mom, you never want to tell your children - and I'm about to get emotional behind this one - but you never want to tell your children no. You want to be able to say, yes, I got it. Yes, you have it. Yes, I can do it. Ever since I had these children, it's been me, you know? I just wish that there was more help financial wise when it comes to, what if I can't pay a bill this month?

RASCOE: Tomicia, have you gotten all the supplies that you need for school at this point?

GRAY: No, actually, I haven't. I haven't even started us getting their bookbags, so I'm pressed for time.

RASCOE: When does school start?

GRAY: August 25. And I don't get paid until Friday. So yeah, I'm pretty much in a hole.

RASCOE: Have you received any support from your kids' schools?

GRAY: No, they didn't even have any money to do back-to-school drives this year. They're in the same situations or predicament as us because they're not getting the funding that they need from the government to be able to help out those parents like myself who are in need.

RASCOE: You talked about, you know, wanting your kids to be able to, you know, enjoy things. Like, are they in extracurricular activities? I know that can also add up.

GRAY: They were. My son - like I said, he played basketball. But unfortunately, I'm one of the parents not able to come up with the money that was needed on time. And so all summer long, my son has been in the house. And then, you know, my daughter - she's really good at art. You know, for that, too, you need - if you're drawing - and she loves to draw - you need the utensils. You need the - you know, the notebooks. I wasn't able to do that for her. She wanted to do a cosmetology - it was, like, a three-day camp. And the pricing for it was $400. So yeah.

RASCOE: Yeah, that's a lot. That's a bill. That's a big bill. Many Americans, like you said - they're feeling this pain that you're feeling. Like, do you have advice or thoughts for other parents that might be struggling like you are?

GRAY: Just don't give up. You just never know when that help will come. Definitely reach out to churches. Definitely even try to reach out to the schools because you just never know. Just stay encouraged because that's what I'm doing. I'm having to pick up two jobs, and I wish that on nobody. I wish that on nobody. But I'm doing what I have to do until I can do what I want to do.

RASCOE: Tomicia Gray, single mom to two kids who are heading back to school. Thank you so very much for talking with us.

GRAY: Yes, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.