Regular readers of this blog have met ALICE before. ALICE is an acronym standing for “Asset limited, income constrained, employed.” That last word–employed–is important; it puts the lie to the widespread fiction that struggling Americans just need to work, or work harder.
The Association of United Ways issued the original ALICE report in 2014, updated it in 2016, and have now produced data for 2018. It isn’t pretty.
For those who haven’t met ALICE, the report describes her:
ALICE is your child care worker, your parent on Social Security, the cashier at your supermarket, the gas attendant, the salesperson at your big box store, your waitress, a home health aide, an office clerk. ALICE cannot always pay the bills, has little or nothing in savings, and is forced to make tough choices such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent. One unexpected car repair or medical bill can push these financially strapped families over the edge.
As the researchers point out, traditional measures of poverty don’t capture the real picture–the number of people who are struggling financially because the actual cost of life’s necessities where they live is more than they earn.
Indiana, for example, has 2,530,581 households. Thirteen and a half percent of those households fall below the official poverty line–but another 25.2% fall between the poverty line and the ALICE threshold. That’s 38.7% of Hoosiers who face a constant, debilitating struggle for economic survival.
The Indianapolis Business Journal (subscription required) recently began a series it is calling “One City, Worlds Apart” focusing on the dimensions of that struggle and the consequences for the city as a whole.
The number of Indianapolis residents living in poverty rose from 11.8 percent in 2000 to 21.3 percent in 2015 — an increase of more than 85,000 people. During that same period, the city’s population only grew 90,000.
About 30 percent of Indianapolis children lived in poverty in 2015, a particularly worrisome finding, because recent research has found that growing up in impoverished homes has a quantifiably negative effect on children’s cognitive ability.
The stress experienced by impoverished and ALICE families isn’t just financial: struggling people live in poorer neighborhoods that are less safe and less healthy. They lack the time and resources that permit other citizens to participate in civic and political life–and as a result, their voices aren’t heard–or their needs considered– in most public policy debates.
As the ALICE reports have emphasized, ALICE folks are in large part the workers that we more privileged folks rely upon for a multitude of essential services. Evidently, we aren’t willing to pay a living wage to the people who provide those services. (There’s a parallel here with our unwillingness to pay taxes adequate to support the public services we demand.)
The irony is, we pay in other ways. As the ALICE reports and the Business Journal series document, there are significant social costs to a system that leaves so many hard-working people behind.
Dismissing the struggle of ALICE families as a consequence of laziness or lack of ambition is a sign of moral obtuseness–when it isn’t intentionally self-serving. When you tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you should probably check to see if they have any boots.