More than a million, or 39%, of households in Tennessee cannot afford basic needs like food, housing, transportation, child care and health care.
This was among the findings of a new study the United Ways of Tennessee released Friday in Nashville, “ALICE in Tennessee: A Financial Hardship Study.”
“The report is the most comprehensive depiction of financial need in our state to-date,” said Mary Graham, president of United Ways of Tennessee. “Unlike the official federal poverty level, which doesn’t accurately account for local costs of living, our report factors in the costs of housing, food, health care, transportation and other basic needs to determine what it truly costs to live in Tennessee.”
“ALICE” stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” and refers to people who are working, but still struggle to afford basic needs.
The report is a project of United For ALICE, a grassroots movement of more than 600 United Way chapters and their corporate, government and nonprofit partners which all use the same methodology for documenting financial need. It was funded in part by BB&T, First Tennessee, First Tennessee Foundation and the Tennessee Afterschool Network.
Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of the United Way of the Ocoee Region, was among the presenters at the event kicking off the release of the report.
“While there has been a lot of study about poverty, this is a larger group of people who are on the edge monetarily,” Ryerson said of those who can be categorized as ALICE.
Of Tennessee’s 2,589,017 households, 15% lived in poverty in 2017, and another 24% were ALICE households. Combined, 39%, or 1,017,504 households, had incomes below the ALICE threshold, an increase of 17% since 2007.
The study says 17% of households in Bradley County are in poverty, and 24% can be categorized as ALICE households. In Polk County, 17% of households are in poverty, and 21% are ALICE households.
The study looked at what Tennessee’s household incomes were in comparison to a “survival budget” of $50,796 annually.
It included “the most basic” expenses for a family of four, including estimates for the costs of food, housing, transportation, health care, technology and child care for two children.
This budget was based on going rates for basic home-based child care, service for a smartphone only (no home internet service), food purchased to follow the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan and more. Despite the “basic” nature of this budget, many families still struggle.
“Poverty has a really limited definition, and being above poverty doesn’t mean you are able to make it,” said Dr. Rose Naccarato of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.
Being able to meet a “survival budget” can be a challenge for many families, but the study also found some groups have been disproportionately affected.
Among the findings were that 76% of single female heads of households, or single mothers, throughout Tennessee fall into the ALICE category. Ryerson said that means three out of four single mothers “are struggling to meet a survival budget.”
Many in this group are “near poverty,” because of the costs single mothers must try to cover without a spouse or partner who can bring in extra income. The unique challenges faced by these households can also have big effects on the lives of the children, Naccarato said.
In addition, more than 40% of elderly individuals throughout Tennessee are part of ALICE households (30% ALICE and 11% below federal poverty level). The study also found 38% of families with children under the age of 18 have income below the ALICE threshold.
The study also noted several specific demographic groups are more likely to have lower incomes and be part of ALICE households, including “people of color; women; those identifying as LGBTQ; those with lower levels of education; those with a disability; recent undocumented, unskilled or limited English-speaking immigrants; younger veterans; and formerly incarcerated people.”
“Many times, the most vulnerable among us are the most at risk,” Ryerson said.
Ryerson also noted some people have been trying to support their households on minimum wage, “which doesn’t even come close to a survival budget.” Tennessee follows the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour.
Wendy Peay, chair of the United Ways of Tennessee board, noted this is not just a big-city program. Families who are living above the poverty level, but still struggling financially can be found in both large cities and rural communities.
Peay said the hope is this study will give communities the information they need to see the biggest needs in their communities and look for ways to help.
“We will use this information to raise awareness and take action to address the growing ranks of ALICE households across Tennessee,” Graham said. “These working families are doing their part, but as our data makes clear, hard work alone is not enough to survive and thrive.
"We now have a nonpartisan tool that United Way can use to partner with businesses, government, nonprofits, the faith-based community, and our state’s citizens to help struggling families move
To view the study results in full, including reports about each of Tennessee’s 95 counties, visit www.uwtn.org/alice
The Cleveland Daily Banner will publish more details on the ALICE study findings for Bradley County and Polk County at a later date.