Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of the United Way of the Ocoee Region, is hoping recent focus on people, whose incomes are above the poverty line but below “survival” levels, will result in more resources to help those people.
The United Ways of Tennessee recently released “ALICE in Tennessee: A Financial Hardship Study,” which provided a detailed look at the challenges faced by this population. These people are referred to as “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” — or “ALICE” for short.
“Feedback on this has maybe been the most feedback we’ve gotten on any one issue,” Ryerson said. “People recognize the 'ALICE' budget. Most of them know somebody dealing with this, or they have lived it themselves.”
There are an estimated 40,610 households in Bradley County. The study says 24% are considered "ALICE.” An additional 17% of households are living in poverty. This was based on the federal poverty income level for 2017, which was $12,060 for a single adult and $24,600 for a family of four.
To define who is “ALICE,” the study compared the average incomes of Tennessee residents with “household survival budgets” based on estimated costs of living.
The “household survival budget” for a Bradley County family with two adults, one infant and one preschooler includes $745 for housing, $543 for food, $990 for childcare, $644 for transportation, $529 for healthcare, $75 for technology and $403 miscellaneous. With taxes, a family must make $4,436 a month — or $53,232 a year — to follow this budget.
Authors of the study have said the “survival budget” is based on the most basic levels of expenses, such as home-based childcare rather than care at a state-certified childcare facility. It also does not include “stability budget” items, such as home internet service.
The prevailing idea behind the results of this study is the costs of living throughout Tennessee have grown faster than the average wages employers are paying.
Staff of the local United Way chapter are used to helping people in poverty, Ryerson said. However, this study presented them with the reality there are many more people in this area who are at risk to falling into poverty.
“It’s probably redefined our work,” Ryerson said. “It’s really challenged us to reconsider who we serve and how we serve.”
For example, groups within the United Way have been looking at “eviction prevention” for those struggling to pay their rent. While the United Way will still champion efforts to help the homeless, Ryerson said the organization also wants to prevent homelessness.
Ryerson said many donors and others within the community now have a different idea of what it looks like to be “income-constrained.” Even if someone is making well over the federal minimum wage, they may still be struggling to make ends meet.
With 41% of Bradley County households either in poverty or at the “ALICE” level, this is a problem many deal with day in and day out.
Ryerson added certain groups, like single parents, can be disproportionately affected. Statewide, 76% of “single-female-headed families” and 59% of “single-male-headed families” are considered “ALICE.”
He also noted groups like the elderly are affected, because so many of them are retired and living on very limited incomes.
“This report, for everybody, has been an eye-opener,” Ryerson said. “It makes the crisis come to life.”
Though still in the early stages of its plans to help, Ryerson said the United Way is already “shifting criteria” for assistance programs which have been geared toward people in poverty.
Ryerson said more focus will now be placed on helping families within the “ALICE” population to prevent poverty. While the organization will still help people who have “hit rock bottom,” he said the goal will also be to help people before they reach that point.
“If we’re catching people as they hit rock bottom, there are always going to be people hitting rock bottom,” Ryerson said.
Ryerson said the local United Way is planning discussions with the various groups and organizations it works with on how to better help people within the “ALICE” population.
United Way staff are also preparing to launch a strategic planning process which could include active steps to help that population. They will be making their plan public to try to get the community’s help.
“There is an energy, an enthusiasm around solving some of these problems. We don’t want to miss the energy train that comes with this,” said Ryerson.
In addition, he noted local families are facing some financial circumstances which were not even covered in the statewide study — such as student loan debt or grandparents having to take custody of grandchildren.
These and other factors could be part of the discussion as the local United Way continues to delve into the financial challenges of local families and begins to brainstorm more ways to help.
“The ‘ALICE’ report wasn’t actually the end,” Ryerson said. “It was actually the beginning.”