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Morristown Green: ALICE does live here…but she’s struggling, experts tell Morris Township gathering

By Sarah Yamashita

Who is ALICE?

At the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship in Morris Township on Thursday, everyone agreed that ALICE is everyone. And everywhere.

ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The term describes the staggering number of American workers who cannot afford the rising cost of necessities such as food, housing, health care, child care, taxes, and technology.

Forty-one percent of New Jersey households are below the ALICE threshold. Cumberland County has the highest percentage, 61 percent, while Hunterdon County is lowest at 27 percent.

In Morris County — one of America’s wealthiest counties — 30 percent of households are below this threshold.

Community members gathered at the Fellowship to discuss issues facing ALICE families here. New national data was unveiled at a press event in Washington DC showing how many American workers are struggling financially and why.

The grassroots United Way ALICE® Project started in Morris County in 2009. It has expanded to every county in New Jersey and 17 other states: Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Toby Tyler, a consultant on the ALICE Research Advisory Committee, said the United Way devised the acronym “to put a face on the information, to personalize it a little more so that people could get more out of it… you know how people’s eyes glaze over when they see data.

“ALICE has been used by a large number of social service agencies to decide where to place services, and to inform people in each state where services and what kind of services are needed,” said Tyler, who helped develop the first report nine years ago.

For example, the Atlantic Health System in New Jersey uses ALICE data to understand social determinants of health need for residents across its service footprint.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided a $2 million grant to the Rutgers University School of Public Health to study the impact of Superstorm Sandy on the health of ALICE households.

ALICE determines the cost of living in each county relative to the federal poverty level (FPL). The problem with the FPL is that it does not accurately reflect regional differences.

With data-driven analysis, however, the research team can predict what portion of people in Morris County, for example, are below the “sustainable level.”

“To say that being in poverty in Morris County is the same as being in poverty in rural Georgia is crazy,” said Ashley Anglin, production director for ALICE. The U.S. is too diverse; the number must reflect local conditions.

ALICE aims to draw attention to this disparity. “Where you live really matters,” said Anglin. “It does a disservice to people… working to make ends meet [who] may not meet” the FPL definition.

There are 34.7 million ALICE households in the U.S. These include individuals and families who live above the poverty line, but do not earn enough to afford the basics.

When combined with the 16.1 million families living in poverty, a total of 50.8 million American households have incomes below the ALICE threshold, according to 2016 data. That translates to 43 percent of the nation’s 119 million households walking a financial tightrope.

The new data shows the percentage of households that fall below the ALICE threshold (the minimum budget needed to afford the necessities) for every county and state in the country. This basic budget does not account for buying a house, savings, or luxury items. It also is vulnerable to crises, such as a car breakdown or unexpected medical bill. America’s economy is to blame for the rise in ALICE households, according to the United Way.

In 2016, 66 percent of jobs paid less than $20 an hour. People routinely work more than one job today. Families erode because parents work so much. “How can we build community when we’re fragmenting our lives so much?” asked one person at Thursday’s event.

One stereotype about the poor is that they are not working. People below this level often are working more than one job. No one chooses to be ALICE, analysts say.

Since the recession, economic “recovery” has entailed low-wage jobs, contract work without benefits, and sporadic work with unstable incomes, according to the ALICE Project. Yet ALICE jobs– such as teaching and daycare— keep cities running. That was the sentiment shared at the Fellowship: ALICE truly is everyone. And everywhere. Morristown Green correspondent Sarah Yamashita is a senior at the Morristown-Beard School. She will attend Smith College in the fall.

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