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39% of Marylanders can't afford cost of living: Meet ALICE

February 23, 2021

Imagine having to make tough financial choices every day. Choices like, do I buy medicine or groceries with the money I have left? Do I fix my car so I can get to work, or pay my rent to keep from losing my home? Do I place my child in a quality daycare program, or do I look for a less expensive alternative that might not be the best care?

Odds are, you know someone who is faced with choices like these. Perhaps you once had to make these decisions—or even find yourself facing them now.

United Ways throughout the state of Maryland released a report that gives an identity and voice to people who work hard, yet struggle to make ends meet. These people are called ALICE.

ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE is the person who waits on tables, fixes cars, scans our groceries, and cares for our elderly and young. Cashiers, administrative assistants, laborers, security guards—people who are working, but who live paycheck to paycheck, most often with nothing left over for an unexpected event, such as an illness, car repair, or job loss.

The report reveals that in central Maryland, a staggering 39 percent of households live at or below the ALICE threshold. Their earnings are not enough to support a Survival Budget that is more than twice or even three times the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), which does not accurately reflect current, local costs of living.

The ALICE Survival Budget covers only the most basic and necessary expenses, including food, housing, healthcare, transportation, childcare, and taxes. For a single adult, the FPL is $12,140; for a single ALICE adult, an annual budget of $33,636 is required to meet basic needs. For ALICE, one emergency can spiral into a crisis. For a family of four, the Survival Budget is $87,156, while the FPL is only $25,100.

The report also reveals that low wage jobs dominate the state economy, with most paying between $11 and $15 per hour (or $30,000 per year at $15 per hour). The basic cost of living in central Maryland is more than most of its jobs can support.

We recently talked to Heather, a working mom with three children who’s finding it harder and harder to make ends meet for her family. Heather makes $16.50 an hour as a front desk manager in a Baltimore County dental practice. A new baby boy means that her family’s already tight budget must stretch even further. Daycare for her son and daughter is more than $1,500 month, and the rent on their 700-square-foot apartment was just raised.

Heather recently returned to work after six weeks of unpaid maternity leave. “I started saving up when I learned I was pregnant so I could take some time off after the baby came, but the money ran out—and I can’t afford not to work. And lately it seems like groceries and other things have just gotten more expensive.”

Heather left her previous job when a raise was not forthcoming. “I worked there for five years and was never late; never took a sick day.” Like her old job, her new job doesn’t offer any benefits other than free cleanings and minor dental work for her and her family. It does pay fifty cents more an hour and helps with the household income, but, she says, “We make too much to get help, but not enough to survive.” She and her boyfriend drive for Uber when not working their full-time jobs to help bring in some much-needed extra money.

“I’m not the kind of person who doesn’t pay my bills—I stay on top of them. But it’s not hard to get behind with the daycare and healthcare bills.”

United Way commissioned the ALICE report to fully understand and best respond to the needs of ALICE’s like Heather. The findings of these reports, which we began issuing in 2017, are used to strengthen existing programs and to create new, sustainable initiatives, that will, in collaboration with United Way partner agencies and others, improve the lives of all ALICE individuals and families in Maryland.

United Way has long addressed the needs of ALICE through its family stability programming. There are currently 14 sites offering families comprehensive services to help them get back on their feet. The sites are strategically located in neighborhoods with high rates of evictions, and calls into United Way’s 211 helpline, which connects callers—many of them ALICE—with important health and human services resources.

In the coming months, we’ll be publishing more stories about the report and about ALICE families and individuals. Be sure to check the ALICE website for the latest, and to access the full report as well as a summary.


(All data 2018.)

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