How COVID-19 impacts ALICE: Learn More Louisiana must find ways to give families better opportunities

Updated Jan 15, 2019; Posted Jan 15, 2019

By The Times-Picayune Editorial Board

Louisiana’s high poverty rate is well documented, but there are thousands of families above that line who also can’t afford basic expenses.

A new report from the Louisiana Association of United Ways quantifies that group, known as ALICE, for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Statewide, 828,255 households — 48 percent — could not afford basic needs such as housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and technology in 2016, a press release on the latest report says. That includes Louisianians who are living in poverty and those in the ALICE category.

The statistical picture of our region is no better than the state numbers. The seven parishes served by United Way of Southeast Louisiana combined have 47 percent of residents who don’t make enough to cover basic needs. The highest percentages in our region are in New Orleans, with 53 percent; St. Bernard Parish, 52 percent, and Washington Parish, 58 percent. The lowest number, not surprisingly, is 36 percent in St. Tammany Parish — but that still represents thousands of families who are underwater financially.

“While we witnessed an overall decline in the poverty rate, almost one in two households in Southeast Louisiana is still struggling to make ends meet,” United Way of Southeast Louisiana President and CEO Michael Williamson said in a statement about the report, which is an update of earlier research released in 2016 and 2017.

United Way’s hope is that these reports will help shape public policy to better support families and create economic opportunity. To that end, the agency is “doubling down on our investments in early care and education, workforce development, and re-entry to improve the economic climate for business in our region,” Mr. Williamson said.

Low wages dominate Louisiana's economy. Across Louisiana, 66 percent of jobs pay $20 or less per hour. Most of those jobs pay less than $15 an hour, which amounts to $30,000 a year full-time.

In New Orleans, 24 percent of residents are living in poverty, which in 2016 meant making less than $24,300 for a family of four, the report said. Another 29 percent fall under the ALICE threshold of $60,732 to allow a family of four to meet living expenses.

Jobs aren’t necessarily located in areas where housing is affordable, which also puts pressure on families. Problems with transportation and childcare also can limit a family's options.

Since 2005, housing has become significantly more expensive in New Orleans. Only some of the affordable housing lost in the flooding during Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches has been replaced.

Government and nonprofit groups supplement low-income families across Louisiana, but there is still a gap. The household survival budget developed by the United Way also doesn't allow for any savings, so these families are vulnerable to emergencies.

The benefit of the report is that it allows communities and state leaders to come up with solutions that are more targeted.

There are important short-term strategies including food pantries, utility assistance, emergency housing repairs and child care subsidies.

Long term, there is a need for more affordable housing, higher wages and job training to fit business needs. The Medicaid expansion that Gov. John Bel Edwards approved his first day in office has made a big difference for tens of thousands of families who were uninsured before.

Quality childcare and preschool must be a priority. Louisiana is “only serving 15 percent of our children in need from birth through age 3,” Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said earlier this month. That can mean that children aren’t able to thrive in school and that parents miss too much work and risk losing their jobs.

The city of New Orleans is wisely investing in early childhood education. The effort started in 2018, with $750,000 in the city budget for preschool. That helped provide childcare and education to 50 children, but another 571 were left on a waiting list.

This year the city doubled its investment to $1.5 million, which will take more children off the waiting list but won’t put every child in need into a good program. An Orleans Parish School Board working group is trying to find the almost $200 million it would take to provide quality preschool to every child in need from birth to age 4 in the city. That is an ambitious goal, but it is vital to the future of those children and of New Orleans.

These are just a few examples of the kind of change needed in Louisiana. The numbers in the United Way report are grim, but they should inspire us to find solutions to bring relief to families and make Louisiana stronger.