With inflation slowing but still high and pandemic-era funding for safety net programs ending, many households are financially strained. Food, housing and child care are harder to afford or to find, or both. NCSL anticipates these familiar issues will continue to get lawmakers’ attention in 2024.
Not as familiar is the idea of making civil court proceedings more family friendly, which was a breakthrough issue in 2023 and will likely gain steam in the year ahead as it’s an area where legislatures have a shared role with their state judiciary.
NCSL Forecast ’24
This special report from State Legislatures News covers the topics NCSL’s policy experts anticipate will occupy state lawmakers’ time in 2024 legislative sessions. Read the full report here.
Hot Topic: Creating More Affordable Housing
No state has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing for the lowest-income renters, and the dream of buying a home is becoming increasingly out of reach for more U.S. families. Multiple factors have contributed to the growing inaccessibility of housing, including construction costs, interest rates, incomes lagging behind housing prices and generational shifts in homeownership. NCSL predicts housing and homelessness will once again be dominant topics in 2024 legislative sessions.
ACTION: In 2023, legislators in 49 states, Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands introduced more than 2,500 bills addressing housing and homelessness—nearly double the amount of the year before.
The situation is remarkably complex, and numerous interrelated factors make complete solutions difficult to identify. This hasn’t stopped states and territories from trying.
In 2023, lawmakers expanded tenants’ rights to purchase properties, established eviction protections, incentivized developers to build more affordable housing, and modified zoning requirements to allow for greater density and middle housing. They also explored options to bolster workforce housing and improve home financing opportunities for first-time buyers as well as teachers, first-responders and others for whom housing can be both a barrier and an incentive for employment.
Hot Topic: Reducing Food Insecurity
In a recent survey, more than 26 million households reported they sometimes or often do not have enough food to eat—a 42% increase compared with the same period in 2021. The USDA also found that 17.3% of households with children were food insecure in 2022—the highest number since 2015.
Consumer prices for all items rose 6.5% in the year ending in December 2022. Food prices alone increased 10.4% in that period. The rate of increases has since slowed, but prices continue to strain household budgets, and the cost of rental housing has outpaced inflation. Nearly half of U.S. renters spent at least 30% of their income on housing in 2020, leaving many households with little left over to buy food.
The end of pandemic-related economic supports is another factor driving the increase in food insecurity. For example, states used temporary federal funds to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, but that aid ended in February 2023.
ACTION: NCSL observed an increase in legislation to combat food insecurity in 2023, with states easing SNAP qualifications, including adjusting asset limits; exploring broad-based categorical eligibility; and providing transitional assistance to reduce benefits cliffs. States also considered legislation to expand SNAP benefits and increase access to healthy food. In addition, some states increased food security among postsecondary students, raised awareness of public assistance programs through outreach, authorized food security studies, and other initiatives.
Hot Topic: Stabilizing Child Care
It’s been three years since the federal government passed the first round of COVID-19 emergency funding to help secure child care—an industry that was on shaky ground before the pandemic and that remains on the brink. States used the roughly $50 billion to aid families and keep child care businesses afloat. The funds reached 220,000 providers caring for 9.6 million children, according to federal Office of Child Care.
Even with the historic influx of cash, the industry has not fully rebounded. There are 40,000 fewer child care professionals working today than in early 2020. Those in field earn an average of $14 an hour, about the same as fast food workers and slightly less than pet sitters, fueling high turnover. Meanwhile, child care continues to be many families’ highest expense, often exceeding the costs of housing and in-state college tuition.
ACTION: With most pandemic funds ending this fall and no federal child care deal in sight, many experts fear child care staffing shortages will worsen, and some are sounding the alarm on a major fiscal cliff. Some states are already preparing for that possibility. Several legislatures increased their state’s child care investment in 2023—raising wages for early childhood educators with stipends or reimbursement rates, expanding eligibility for child care assistance or covering low-income families’ copayments.
Time will tell what effect the drop in federal child care funding will have and whether states that have increased their investments will have a softer landing. What is known is that as long as parents need to work, child care will be necessary.
Hot Topic: Improving Child Welfare Court Processes
State legislators increasingly are recognizing a need to ensure civil court processes do not inflict harm or trauma on children and families. NCSL expects that 2024 legislative sessions will draw more attention to improving child welfare court proceedings.
ACTION: NCSL experienced a spike in legislative research requests in 2023 related to the judicial and legal systems, with 26 state legislatures enacting 83 bills relating to courts and child welfare systems between January and November. Some of the attention is on court programs or processes for specific populations, such as safe baby courts for infants and toddlers, and training for court personnel working with Native Americans and Alaska Natives and victims of family violence.
NCSL anticipates that legislative action to improve child welfare court proceedings is likely to continue through three main areas of focus:
- Increasing legal representation for children and parents. Utah and Iowa created pilot programs in 2023 to give families greater access to legal counsel in child welfare proceedings, which is associated with positive outcomes. Additionally, the federal Administration for Children and Families introduced a proposed rule that would allow states to use Title IV-E funds for administrative costs associated with providing foster care legal representation.
- Improving court processes, efficiency and oversight. To support positive family outcomes, legislatures in 2023 improved cross-branch data access, encouraged safe family time throughout court proceedings, and required evidence-based training on family violence dynamics for judges.
- Increased collaboration between legislatures, the judiciary and other stakeholders. Montana established a task force, made up of diverse stakeholders, to focus on improvements to the child welfare court system, and Illinois urged courts to recommend legislation to reduce Cook County’s disparate child outcomes.