There has been much talk in recent years about the ALICE (Asset-limited, income-constrained, employed) population. In a different time, ALICE would be considered the working poor.
While we hope you will read the 2020 Virginia ALICE report and consider its implications on people living in our own community, don’t miss the peripheral perspective of those whose story is not being told in these numbers.
ALICE represents those in our community who earn more than the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living. Often, they work in essential positions with wages far below the basic cost of living.
According to the ALICE report, approximately 39% of Virginians struggle to make ends meet. Generally, the portion considered part of the ALICE population is the 29% living above the federal poverty level ($12,760 for a single adults and $26,200 for a family of four). Another 10% live below that threshold.
While the struggles of the ALICE population do at times result in homelessness, it is true that most in the statistically defined ALICE group remain safely out of shelters and off the street. For instance, 14% of those seeking Micah’s assistance in the last twelve months reported income above poverty–qualifying them as ALICE.
Although most of our homeless population does live below the federal poverty line, 24% of those seeking Micah’s help last year did have income. Here are some examples of tour neighbor’s unique struggles:
• People who become homeless have often worked their entire lives but a divorce, a disabling accident, mental breakdown, lay-off, catastrophic event sent them spiraling.
• They are children of parents who have been an ALICE; Or they have grown up in poverty or foster care and do not know what it’s like to live outside of survivability. Sometimes they are still recovering from the trauma of not having a present adult and the unintended consequences of the choices their families had to make to survive.
• Many times the mental or physical disability that brought someone to the street has come after years of a decent wage. Even with a work history and the right support, a social security application can take up to a year or more to process. Savings and retirement are depleted quickly when functioning at less than work life capacity and family relationships are strained. The average social security recipient earns between $800 and $1258 a month.
• Some wake up every morning at 4am, just to make it to a day labor site for a limited job ticket. They beat up concrete, stand for hours in the blazing sun and bone-chilling cold and eagerly jump into the jobs that regular contractors don’t want to do, just to bring home $50. It’s often enough to get a bite to eat, rent a hotel room, pocket a couple dollars, and do over again the next day.
• A person working full time at minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) earns $15,080 a year. Most employers with low end jobs, however, don’t offer more than 29 hours because they would have to pay health insurance. That’s $10,933.
• Plenty of people get second and third jobs to survive. And as the ALICE report will affirm, this is at great cost to their social, emotional and financial well-being. But as much as some people may want to work multiple jobs, personal limitations and the daily worry of where they will sleep, get a meal and tend to other basic needs makes it a win for them to hang onto one.
• Many of of our homeless neighbors are trying to get a job, but no one will take a chance on them because of their background, educational limitations or disabilities.
• When they do get a job, they are haunted for years by overdue debt and garnishmentsscraped right off the top of their paycheck. Some people can literally work a 40-hour-shift and walk out with nothing because their entire check is catching up with old obligations.
• So brutal is the struggle to get and keep a job in the midst of homelessness that many people give up and even begin to believe they are not worthy of having one.
It doesn’t take much for the human spirt to simply give up.
Author and Pastor Rob Bell says, “Despair is believing that tomorrow is going to be the same as today.”
If they do not already hold a job, most people who are homeless or living in poverty want to work, have purpose and a dignified income. For whatever reason, they fell through the cracks of whatever safety nets were in place and their circumstances left them with little reason to think tomorrow will ever come.
But if we want our homeless neighbors to be an ALICE or even rise above it, we have to talk about them too.
They are without question asset limited, income constrained and desperately desiring, if they do not already have, a dignified income. But far too often there are external factors standing in the way, including their own belief that their lives can have meaning and purpose, as well.
Please take the time to read and reflect upon the ALICE report, but we ask that you do so with a comprehensive picture of poverty.
If we truly care about ALICE, our advocacy will not stop short on whether our neighbors are working enough or deserving enough of time and resources. We will consider all the factors that put people at risk and how we can care for them better when they fall through the cracks. We will look at living wages, systemic racism, hurdles of the criminal justice system, debt collection and lending practices, affordable housing, access to health care, the stigma of mental health, food security, transportation, access to technology and the profound catastrophic breakdown in how we love our neighbors—all of them.