As educators across the country have launched protests over teacher pay, national attention has focused on states where teacher salaries fall below the country’s average.
But some teachers in states with the highest teacher pay are struggling as well, as the rising cost of living in these areas often outpaces their salaries.
This kind of financial stress is linked to higher rates of teacher absenteeism—and even teachers leaving the profession altogether, according to a new study.
Researchers at the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis asked public school teachers in San Francisco—one of the most expensive places to live in the United States—three questions about their financial stress: how often their financial situation made them anxious, how hard or easy it was to pay their rent each month, and how challenging it would be to pay for an unexpected $1,000 expense.
The study’s authors also asked about respondents’ attitudes toward their jobs and collected data on teacher absences from the San Francisco Unified School District. Researchers surveyed 2,226 teachers in total.
In general, these teachers had higher household incomes than the average U.S. worker: most said their household income was between $50,000 and $74,999, while most American households fall under $50,000.
They also make more than most teachers. The average salary in the San Francisco district is $68,000, according to the California Department of Education, while the average teacher salary nationwide is $59,660, the National Education Association reports.
Despite their higher pay, 85 percent of San Francisco teachers said they felt anxious about their financial situation frequently or sometimes. One-fifth of the teachers surveyed have a second job to help cover their expenses.
San Francisco is one of the most unaffordable cities for teachers in the country: A fifth-year teacher in San Francisco would have to set aside almost 70 percent of their income to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the city, according to an analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle. (Financial experts generally recommend putting no more than one-third of your income toward housing.) Among SFUSD teachers who rent their homes, 66 percent said they find it “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to cover their monthly housing costs. In a national survey, 30 percent of employed Americans said the same.
The study also found that younger teachers have more financial stress. The researchers speculated that this may be because they make less money than their more-experienced peers, and are less likely to be part of two-income households.
Teachers who were renting their homes, not living with a spouse or partner, paying off student loans, or eligible for reduced-price lunch as children were also more likely to report feeling anxious about their financial situation.
This stress was correlated with missing days of school and planning to leave the profession. The rate of chronic absenteeism—being absent 10 days or more in a year—was 9 percentage points higher for teachers who say that covering housing costs is very difficult and 12 percentage points higher for teachers who are frequently anxious about their financial situation.
Teachers who said they experienced financial stress missed 1.6 more days of school on average than their peers, and they were less likely to say they wanted to be a teacher again the next year.
While these results don’t show that financial anxiety causes teachers to quit, the researchers say, reducing teachers’ economic anxiety might help SFUSD retain educators.
The most direct route to reducing financial stress is to raise teacher salaries, the researchers say. This week, San Francisco voted to do just that: Proposition G, a ballot initiative that directed an additional $50 million annually to teacher pay, passed on Tuesday.
Some of the other solutions they propose—offering low-cost housing to teachers, locating affordable housing closer to schools, and making financial-assistance programs available—are already being tested in some cities. Last year, San Francisco’s mayor committed $44 million to build up to 150 rental units reserved for teachers.
Even as cities, districts, and private companies take on these efforts, there’s little evidence to show that housing incentives actually work to retain teachers. Almost 55 percent of former teachers who would consider returning to the profession say that housing perks would be “not at all important” to their decision, according to a 2012-2013 survey from the U.S. Department of Education.
Education Week looked at some of these efforts in expensive metro areas including San Francisco, Denver, and Miami earlier this year. While public-assistance programs and privately funded grants and loans solve the housing problem for some teachers, one leader from a Denver teachers’ union questioned whether districts could provide such solutions at scale.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.