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Why inflation has hit back-to-school shopping harder than ever

The cost of basic school supplies is higher than ever for parents preparing to send their children back to school this month.

The cost of school supplies spiked alongside rising rates of consumer inflation nationwide. As of July, consumer inflation had increased 8.5% in 12 months. The figure marked a marginal decline from the 9.1% increase recorded in June, the largest inflation spike in over 40 years.

This year, the absence of COVID-19 stimulus checks and advances on child tax credits further exacerbated the strain on families. A recent survey from Morning Consult found that just 36% of surveyed U.S. parents say they can afford their children’s back to school shopping, down from 52% last year.

“The steep drop off between 2021 and 2022 is really, really stark,” said Claire Tassin, a retail and e-commerce analyst at Morning Consult. “This is more dramatic than I’ve ever seen.”

As the 2022-23 school year approaches, support networks have sprung up across Sacramento to provide free school supplies to parents facing the “strain and stress” that Tassin said is associated with the peak of the back-to-school shopping period.

Affording school supplies

According to Tassin, the back-to-school shopping period is uniquely challenging because it requires parents to make a host of purchases at once, creating a concentrated period of high spending.

On top of new clothes for the school year, Tassin said that most families make a round of purchases to complete the list of required supplies sent out by teachers at the beginning of the year.

For the past 17 years, Volunteers of America has operated the Operation Backpack program, which provides backpacks full of school supplies to Sacramento-area families experiencing homelessness or on the verge of homelessness.

Parents also often shoulder the cost of classroom supplies like hand-sanitizer and tissues, which teachers who are expected to pay for them out of pocket might ask families to contribute.

The cost of school supplies can quickly become a burden for families, according to Northern California VOA director of development Ana Bankert.

“I have two little ones going into elementary school this year,” Bankert said. “Just looking at how much I’ll be spending just on supplies for the two of them — I’m looking at anywhere from $120 to $140. This is elementary school, and just the supplies.”

‘An emotional tie’

Back-to-school shopping, Tassin explained, is viewed by most parents as “essential spending,” so the amount that families spend on school supplies remains unchanged regardless of whether or not they can afford it.

“No matter if you feel like you can or cannot afford back-to-school shopping, the spending plans are the same,” Tassin said. “ For wealthier people who are able to absorb inflationary prices, it’s not so much of an issue. For those who are either concerned, or just flat out saying they can’t afford it, where is that money coming from?”

Families might be more likely to draw from savings accounts or charge credit cards to make major back-to-school purchases, Tassin said.

According to Bankert, the financial strain on families also creates a demand for volunteer services like Operation Backpack and other community-based organizations.

Shopping for school supplies in particular, Bankert said, could have an emotional component for families hit hard by the effects of inflation.

“We started this to help our kids in our shelters feel good about themselves and excited about the school year,” Bankert said. “It’s a hands-on campaign, so people do get to go shopping, whether they’re with their kids or it’s their tradition to buy a few backpacks and fill them. It’s definitely an emotional tie.”

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