(Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a series exploring poverty in Bradley County and the Ocoee Region, as well as the growing number of local families struggling to survive as the "working poor.")
Making ends meet can be a difficult thing for anyone whose income does not match up with local costs of living, but single parents who must raise their families with just one person’s income are among those most affected.
This is according to “ALICE in Tennessee: A Financial Hardship Study,” recently released by the United Ways of Tennessee. The study measured the financial challenges faced by people whose incomes are above the federal poverty level and are still struggling. The study calls them “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” — “ALICE” for short.
A whopping 76% of “single-female-headed families” and 59% of “single-male-headed families” across the state of Tennessee are considered “ALICE.” According to the study, the percentage difference is because women typically made less money than men.
“Basically three out of four single mothers are struggling to meet a survival budget,” said Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of the United Way of the Ocoee Region.
In Bradley County, 24% of all households, regardless of marital status, are considered “ALICE,” and an additional 17% are in poverty. It is unclear how many of these are led by single parents, though single parents are part of the "ALICE" population.
The study compared average incomes in every county in Tennessee with “household survival budgets” based on estimated local costs of living.
The monthly “household survival budget” for a Bradley County family with a single adult and one school-aged child includes $561 for housing, $176 for childcare, $309 for food, $386 for transportation, $248 for healthcare, $55 for technology and $194 miscellaneous — a total of $25,620 with taxes.
A single parent raising an infant or more than one child can expect to have to budget even more. For example, the “survival budget” for a single adult and one infant includes $521 a month for childcare.
Authors of the study have said the “survival budget” is meant to indicate the bare-bones expenses a family may face and does not include any savings for emergencies. This means families affected by unexpected expenses can see big hits to their budgets.
This is something Debbie Millard knows all too well. Millard, who makes $44,000 as an inventory specialist for a local manufacturer, is the head of a household which includes her elderly parents, one daughter and the daughter's two children and two other grandchildren for whom she has custody.
Her paycheck must largely cover the needs of four adults and four children, and hers is among the local households considered “ALICE.” The study’s “survival budget” for just two adults and two school-age children is $44,544.
To illustrate how unexpected expenses can affect a family budget, she described how a leak in her family’s refrigerator is damaging the kitchen floor. To get a new floor installed, she needs a new fridge. However, her fridge is older and therefore narrower than new ones in her price range.
“Before I can get a new fridge, I have to take out a wall. Then I get the fridge, which gives me the new floor,” Millard said. “It’s a cycle. A project that wasn’t crazy expensive is like $15,000 now.”
There are a number of other unexpected expenses which can result in even larger bills, such as health emergencies resulting in surgeries and/or hospital stays.
Edith Crawford, a mother of two teenagers who became a widow in 2005, also knows what it is like to have to cover a family’s basic needs on just one person’s income.
“There have been times I as a mother have went without to get what my kids need and want,” Crawford said. “It is hard trying to make ends meet with one income in the home. We just learn how to sacrifice and make it work. Sometimes, they didn’t get what they wanted, but they always got what they needed. "
She also said she had to shoulder the stress of losing her spouse and having to cover the household’s financial needs on her own. She also tried to hide the financial struggles from her children, because she “wanted them to grow up happy and stress-free.”
“There have been times when I didn’t know how I was going to pay rent/mortgage, electric or even get groceries,” Crawford said. “I didn’t get state assistance, so it made it hard at times. I had times where I just prayed out to God, and he supplied our needs.”
Millard also said she has been getting through “by the grace of God” — and lots of careful budgeting.
They and other single parents have said they try to budget their money carefully, but the challenges families within the “ALICE” population face can be compounded if there is only one adult able to work.