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Despite low unemployment, many St. Johns County families still struggle financially

Despite the fact that St. Johns County residents have enjoyed great success in gaining employment in recent years, there’s still a quarter of the population that simply doesn’t earn enough to pay for basic expenses.

By Stuart Korfhage
The St. Augustine Record

Despite the fact that St. Johns County residents have enjoyed great success in gaining employment in recent years, there’s still a quarter of the population that simply doesn’t earn enough to pay for basic expenses.

And it’s more serious for most of the rest of the country despite relatively low unemployment rates.

This is according to a study called The United Way ALICE Project, which released new information on Thursday.

The study found there are 50.8 million U.S. households that can’t afford a basic monthly budget including housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cell phone.

This calculation includes the 16.1 million households in poverty as well as another 34.7 million families called ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These households earn above the Federal Poverty Level but less than what it takes to survive in the modern economy.

“For too long, the magnitude of financial instability in this country has been understated and obscured by misleading averages and outdated poverty calculations,” said John Franklin, president of the Project and CEO of United Way of Northern New Jersey, in a release.

“It is morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable for our country to have so many hardworking families living paycheck to paycheck. We are all paying a price when ALICE families can’t pay the bills.”

The numbers were based on information from 2016, but the economic data have not changed significantly. In St. Johns County, the unemployment rate was no higher than 4 percent in any month of 2016. The national rate for 2016 was 4.6 percent.

In a release provided Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, St. Johns County was listed with an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent in April 2018, tied with Okaloosa County for the lowest rate in the state.

Both the Florida and U.S. seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for April were 3.9 percent.

Despite the fact that so much of the population was employed, 26 percent of those who live in St. Johns County had incomes below the line of what the ALICE Report said it takes to meet basic living expenses (based on 2016 data).

That was the best situation in the state, which didn’t fare very well overall with only 54 percent of the population living above the ALICE threshold.

“It’s a natural thing for us to think about ‘those people,’ but when you look at those numbers, it reminds us that it’s all of us,” said Melissa Nelson, the president and CEO of United Way of St. Johns County.

“I’m kind of that person that’s always a positive, eternal optimist, and I always feel like everything is fine. And sometimes it takes an overall survey like this to remind us that it really isn’t.”

Nelson said the ALICE information reinforces her resolve to keep pushing for support for the United Way because so many people are struggling — or are one unexpected medical bill or unexpected repair bill away from struggling. And it’s happening even in an affluent county where almost everyone who is able to work has a job.

“It’s important for everyone to understand the work that we do and to know that it could be any of us at any time that needs assistance,” she said.

St. Johns County has now reached its pre-recession rate of unemployment. The rate here was 3 percent or lower from October 2005 to December 2006. The high came a few years later at 9.3 percent in January 2010.

While the employment situation is considered to be very good for workers, there are still a lot of people here who haven’t achieved economic stability. That’s often because of the housing situation.

There’s no accurate measurement for rent costs in the county, in part because there are so few apartment complexes, but a search of listings shows very little available at less than $1000 per month.

Mary Kelley Kryzwick, director of the St. Augustine Regional Office of Catholic Charities, said despite the fact that the economy here is strong, many residents are still having trouble with the basics of food and shelter.

“We haven’t seen a decline at all; if anything, we’ve seen an increase in calls for rental assistance,” Kryzwick said. “Our food pantry is going to exceed the amount of food that we distributed last year. Last year, we distributed 68,550 pounds. I know we’re going to exceed that number this year, so I know the needs are there.”

Kryzwick said some of their clients have to choose between paying the rent and buying food. So they pay the rent and visit the food pantry.

“We have not seen a decrease in the amount of calls we receive (for assistance),” she said. “In fact, I would say the number of calls received just continues on the same pace.”