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United Way unveils new ALICE study of economic hardship in Tennessee

JOHN THOMPSON • SEP 20, 2019 AT 10:30 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Tennessee United Way organizations unveiled a new report Friday on the economic hardships faced by the state’s poorest residents.

And while the numbers reveal the economic challenge facing working families in Tenessee, some of the most sobering statistics are from Upper East Tennessee, especially the area Crystal Carter covers, heading the United Way programs for Carter County and Johnson County.

“ALICE in Tennessee: A Financial Hardship Study” focuses on people who are employed, but whose pay is so low that they cannot afford the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a smartphone.

ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
The report is a project of United For ALICE, a grassroots movement of more than 600 United Ways and their corporate, government and nonprofit partners that all use the same methodology for documenting financial need.

“The report is the most comprehensive depiction of financial need in our state to-date,” said Mary Graham, president of United Way of Tennessee. “Unlike the official federal poverty level, which doesn’t accurately account for local costs of living, our report factors in the costs of housing, food, health care, transportation and other basic needs to determine what it truly costs to live in Tennessee.”

The statewide study reported that 15% of Tennessee households lived in poverty in 2017, and another 24% were ALICE households, for a combined 39%.

But Carter said the numbers are worse for the two counties she leads: a combined 49% in Carter County and 56% in Johnson County.

Even worse, the numbers are concentrated in the parts of the population least able to improve their situation: children and older people. Those groups are often combined in households where grandparents are raising noncustodial grandchildren.

Carter described households where the grandparents could not get government help, such as food stamps, because they did not have custody of the children. Some try to stretch one small Social Security payment to pay the monthly needs of an entire family.

Carter said one way to start fixing the problem is to work with children. Ballad Health has provided grants to help improve literacy, especially for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Another project has been the reading of stories to children every day by a voice that is familiar to them.

But Carter said not everyone has the ability to read to their children. In addition to those who are illiterate, others cannot see well enough to read. And others might be out of the home because of work or incarceration. For those, Carter said programs are being developed to allow these children a 30-minute reading session daily.

United Way has worked with other agencies to help, such as a program to provide needy children with backpacks containing food and hygiene products.

The findings of the ALICE study are not a surprise to people like Carter, who work with people in need in the region and state. The hope is the results will raise community awareness of the problem.

“We will use this information to raise awareness and take action to address the growing ranks of ALICE households across Tennessee,” said Graham. “These working families are doing their part, but as our data makes clear, hard work alone is not enough to survive and thrive. We now have a nonpartisan tool that United Way can use to partner with businesses, government, nonprofits, the faith-based community, and our state’s citizens to help struggling families move up.”

To see all of this information and learn more about the report, visit

The ALICE report for Tennessee was funded in part by the BB&T, First Tennessee, First Tennessee Foundation, and the Tennessee Afterschool Network.

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