ALICE Report opening some community eyes

Posted 10/9/19

Matt Ryerson and his team at United Way of the Ocoee Region are spreading the results of the ALICE Report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed). We just hosted a session here on the Cleveland …

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ALICE Report opening some community eyes

Matt Ryerson and his team at United Way of the Ocoee Region are spreading the results of the ALICE Report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed).
We just hosted a session here on the Cleveland State campus.  This report gives us new insights about the realities of poverty in our community.  
One big finding is that 41% of households in Bradley County struggle to afford the necessities of housing, childcare, food, health care and transportation.  Other counties in our college’s service area include Monroe (49%), McMinn (47%), Meigs (41%) and Polk (38%).  This is based on a Survival Budget of $50,796 — and this just includes the basics, none of the extras we like to enjoy.
We spend a good deal of time at Cleveland State talking about the challenges our students face every day and how these influence decisions to attend and remain in college. 
Even in the days of Tennessee Promise and Reconnect that provide last-dollar scholarships for tuition, many cannot afford the associated costs such as gas, transportation, books and childcare. Too many of our students are faced with food insecurities — a nice phrase meaning they do not necessarily know where their next meal is coming from.
However, lately I have been thinking about our employees, as well.  About the time I first saw the ALICE Report I had the task of signing all of our employee salary letters. Due to a 2% COLA adjustment, for which we are very thankful, we needed to reissue a letter to every employee.  I have to tell you that seeing every employee name along with their salary was a revelation for me.
Overall, our salaries are good, but as you can imagine they range quite a bit depending on the job and the level of training that is required.  Many people like to work for us because state benefits are strong. However, as I viewed each letter I focused on those staff members who were at the bottom of our pay scale. Quite frankly, my gut reaction was, “How do they make it on that salary?”
Luckily, this year due to improved performance outcomes we have additional funds from the state to support the needs of the college. In addition, due to strong enrollment increases, we have more revenue to put toward strategic priorities. 
Our employees are at the top of our priority list. So, as we worked on our FY20 budget, we included costs to move our employees higher on the new compensation plan beyond the 2% COLA.
Given these adjustments, we researched if any of our employees would remain at a full-time annual salary less than $30,000.  Sure enough, we did. I have no idea if they were part of a one- or two-income family.  It really did not matter. While we don’t have the ability to move everyone above the Survival Budget figure, we could at least help those on our staff who were furthest away.
I brought this issue up at a recent Cabinet meeting where I presented the idea that we adjust our lowest salaries so that no full-time employees at the college earn less than $30,000. The support was instantaneous and overwhelming.  Subject to approval by TBR, we are finalizing our FY20 budget and I am proud to say this commitment will be effective Jan. 1, 2020.
Poverty is an issue that affects all aspects of our community. The ALICE Report is shining a light on the realities and magnitude of the problem. It has caused us to think about how we can be part of the solution. 
In the grand scheme, what we are doing here at Cleveland State is just one small step. Imagine if every employer takes a small step? We just might see a significant change.
(About the writer: Dr. Bill Seymour is the president of Cleveland State Community College. He can be reached at


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