(Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of stories exploring poverty in Bradley County and the Ocoee Region, and how many local families are now recognized as the "working poor.")
Some 41% of households in Bradley County are living in poverty or are living above the poverty line, but still struggling to afford basic needs like housing, food and childcare.
This statistic was one of many shared in “ALICE in Tennessee: A Financial Hardship Study,” which was recently released by the United Ways of Tennessee.
“ALICE” stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” and describes what many people may think of as the working poor.
“There were a lot of surprising things in this report,” said Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of the United Way of the Ocoee Region.
Ryerson said many of the surprises had to do with what it actually takes for families to maintain cover basic financial necessities, much less lead a middle-class lifestyle.
Nearly a quarter of Bradley County households — 24% — are considered “ALICE.” In addition, 17% are living at the federal poverty level. That means 41% of the county’s households are regularly having to make hard financial decisions.
The study based these figures on the federal poverty income level for 2017, which was $12,060 for a single adult and $24,600 for a family of four.
It also looked compared average wages in Bradley County and other counties throughout the state with “survival budgets” based on costs of living in each county.
The “household survival budget” for a family with two adults and two young children includes: $745 for housing, $543 for food, $990 for childcare, $644 for transportation, $529 for healthcare, $75 for technology and $403 miscellaneous. Taking taxes into account, a family would need to make $4,436 a month — or $53,232 a year — to live at this level.
This was based on estimated costs 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.
“What I like about the ALICE budget is that it really shows what it takes to pay for everything,” said Eva VanHook, executive director of Family Promise of Bradley County. “All those things are reasonable; it’s not extraordinary by any means.”
VanHook, who works with homeless families trying to find housing and other opportunities, also said it can be a struggle to find jobs which will allow families to even follow such a budget. For example, sometimes the only reliable childcare services available are the expensive ones.
Ryerson also noted the “survival budget” does not specifically include expenses like home internet service, which many families need for school and work purposes, and savings to cover emergencies like an unexpected stay in the hospital.
“There’s a different mentality when you’re in survival mode,” Ryerson said, noting things like emergency funds and retirement savings can easily fall by the wayside.
Because the “ALICE” population makes more than the federal poverty level, those who suddenly find themselves facing an unexpected expense also have fewer resources available to help them.
Ryerson said the local United Way is going to be looking for ways to better serve this population, because there are not many resources geared toward those whose paychecks are higher than poverty wages.
“We see people who are often in danger of landing in poverty, because they don’t have that safety net,” Ryerson said.
According to the study, one reason so many families are struggling today is simply that wages have not kept up with the cost of living. This is true both in Bradley County and across the state.
Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show 67% of the 2.9 million jobs available statewide pay less than $20 an hour. The study points out that someone with a full-time job making $15 an hour has an annual gross pay of $30,000 per year — a full $20,000 less than the “survival budget” for a family of four.
The median household income in Bradley County is $48,857 per year, according to figures cited in the study. However, that is still below the “survival budget” figure for a family.
The study also noted two particular “ALICE” populations are especially vulnerable to financial struggles — single female heads of households (mostly single mothers) and senior citizens. Single mothers often find themselves trying to support their household with single incomes, and seniors are often retired and may be more likely to face healthcare expenses.
These challenges are not just Bradley County problems, however. Families statewide struggle to keep up with the cost of living while earning wages which have not kept up with the cost of living.
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, of households had incomes below the "ALICE" threshold.
The study noted the "ALICE" numbers in Tennessee had nothing to do with whether a given county was rural or was home to a major city.
Bradley County actually has a higher “ALICE and poverty” percentage than larger counties like Hamilton (39%), Knox (33%) and Davidson (35%). It also has a slightly higher “ALICE and poverty” percentage than nearby Polk County — 41% versus 38%.
The study also said that, while some populations may be more vulnerable than others, people of all races, genders and backgrounds can be considered "ALICE."
“These working families are doing their part, but as our data makes clear, hard work alone is not enough to survive and thrive," said Mary Graham, president of United Ways of Tennessee.
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