A new report commissioned by the United Way shows that 45 percent of Ulster County households are living in precarious financial straits — either below the federal poverty line, or not making enough to pay for basic needs like food, housing and child care.
The study is titled ALICE for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” a designation that describes working families struggling to get by on low-wage jobs, but who have household incomes too high to qualify for many government assistance programs. Ulster County United Way President and CEO Stacey Rein said that the study was part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness of the plight of ALICE families who walk a kind of fiscal tightrope where minor financial setbacks can spiral into crushing debt or homelessness.
“These are families where if one thing goes wrong, something as simple as a blown tire, it becomes a crisis for the whole family,” said Rein.
The report focuses on families and individuals caught in the gap between the federal poverty level and the actual cost of living in New York State and Ulster County. The poverty line, where families can qualify for programs like temporary cash assistance and housing subsidies, is $11,670 a year for an individual and $23,850 for a family of four. Meanwhile the “household survival budget” in Ulster County, as calculated by the ALICE report adds up to $22,032 for a single individual and $71,592 for a family of two adults, one infant and one preschooler.
The report notes that the estimated “survival budget” is a bare-minimum standard, allowing for a “very modest” standard of living with no ability to save money or cope with unexpected loss of income or household expenses. By the report’s accounting, some 33 percent of Ulster County households fall into the ALICE category while another 12 percent are below the federal poverty line.
Hard times all around
A geographic breakdown of poor and ALICE households shows that many Ulster County communities rarely thought of as poor have significant numbers of economically struggling families. While the City of Kingston, home to some of the Ulster County’s poorest census tracts and a recipient of federal entitlement money for anti-poverty programs, has a combined poverty/ALICE rate of 61 percent, the rate in Shandaken and Saugerties is 56 percent. Woodstock, one of the county’s wealthier towns, shows a poverty/ALICE rate of 40 percent.
Rein said Ulster County’s ALICE population included many single mothers and two-parent households where both adults worked in low-wage jobs in retail, food service and office administrative jobs. In the wake of the Great Recession where those jobs have increasingly replaced long-gone better-paying ones, the rate of households living in ALICE conditions has increased, despite an overall economic recovery. In 2007, before the Great Recession, 41 percent of New York households were below the ALICE threshold. By 2014 that number had increased to 44 percent. The report notes that low-skilled, low-wage jobs are projected to rise in the coming decade relative to higher-paid ones, leaving more and more families below the ALICE threshold.
For non-profit groups like the United Way, which provide aid to many families who don’t qualify for government help, this means increasing caseloads. Rein said that she hoped the report would highlight the pressing need for community-based groups like the United Way and other nonprofits.
“I feel like [the ALICE report] is airing the dirty laundry,” said Rein. “That there are families out there who are working hard but are in financial distress on a daily basis. We get the calls every day, they’re crying, they’re panicked, they’re desperate.”