Essential ALICE workers aren’t buying luxury power boats. They’re just trying to afford dinner.
There are dueling storylines about America’s workers in recent headlines, and both are true. Inflation has cooled, unemployment is low, and wages have grown. In contrast, 5 million households are behind on rent and 401K hardship withdrawals rose 36%.
There are two starkly different economic realities in America. There’s one in which middle- and high-wage workers saw savings and wealth increase throughout the pandemic. And there’s another for those working in low-income jobs, whose wages stagnated over 15 years. These essential workers were locked out of the economic booms and are still reeling from another battering sustained during the pandemic.
As we celebrate America’s workers this Labor Day, we at United Way of Washington County ask leaders from the boardroom to the statehouse to join us in using our ALICE data to drive innovative solutions and on-the-ground impact needed to create change for these low-wage workers we call ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed).
Because while ALICE workers were recognized for their heroics during the pandemic, they continue to struggle to afford the basics for their own families. Their storyline hasn’t improved.
ALICE workers were always living here and delivering for us – as our childcare professionals, home health aides and delivery workers just to name a few. Though they earn above the Federal Poverty Level, their wages are not enough to cover the rising costs of housing, food, childcare, health care, and transportation – the essentials needed in today’s modern economy.
The outdated and incomplete measurements our country uses to document financial hardship have distorted how we understand the challenges facing these hardworking Americans as they strive for financial stability.
The poverty level vastly underestimates how many households are experiencing hardship. Our state’s latest ALICE report, produced with our research partner United For ALICE, demonstrates that in addition to 223,302 households in poverty, another 357,283 families simply weren’t earning enough in 2021 to afford the basics.
And while the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a valuable economic tool, it doesn’t tell the full story of the impact of rising costs on ALICE. It measures inflation by tracking the cost of more than 200 goods and services, including luxury items.
But ALICE doesn’t buy luxury power boats or scuba diving equipment. ALICE workers are just trying to feed their families three meals a day, live in a safe neighborhood and access quality, affordable childcare.15,
That’s why United for ALICE recently debuted a companion inflation index, the ALICE Essentials Index, which shows both at the national and state levels how the cost of essentials rose at a far faster rate than the CPI lets on.
Over the course of 15 years, the Index found low-wage jobs couldn’t keep up with the increased cost of essentials, even with some modest wage growth. Workers in retail sales, one of the most common occupations in Mississippi, saw an average $27,000.00 loss of purchasing power — more than a year’s earnings.
Relying solely on the CPI to determine increases in the poverty level, Social Security, Medicaid and nutrition supports such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has had damaging consequences, leaving many without a safety net in the face of an emergency.
Our United Way is showing up for ALICE, filling some resource gaps, but we alone cannot bring ALICE households to financial stability. With these new, comprehensive ALICE tools at our disposal, we invite you to partner with us to help fill this gap in the lives of essential workers right here in Washington County.
If we are united in purpose for our essential workers, together we can write a new storyline that puts financial stability in reach for ALICE, improving life for all in our state.
And there’s no better way to celebrate America’s workers than that.
For more information, click the button below to see the ALICE datasheet for Mississippi.
Nathan Benzing - Executive Director United Way of Washington County
Recent economic news is striking a tone we haven’t heard in quite some time: optimism.
Gas prices have dropped, wages for low-income workers have risen and inflation has finally slowed. But while this news is certainly heartening, real progress can’t be measured by national trends alone. It’s critical that we see this growth spread beyond big cities and traditional economic hubs to the small towns and marginalized communities that have been historically left behind. As the CEO of United Way, the largest community-based organization in the world, everything we do is rooted in the belief that our country is only as strong as the individual communities that make it up. And despite the overall progress made, too many communities are still struggling to access the basic services they need — from healthcare and housing to emergency services and disaster response.
Thankfully, Congress has an unprecedented opportunity to change that. The Human-services Emergency Logistics Program (HELP) Act is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would connect vulnerable families and individuals to the local resources they need, ensuring all communities have an equal opportunity to thrive. The HELP Act, which was introduced by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) in the Senate and Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01) and Brian Higgins (D-NY) in the House, specifically provides capacity-building resources to build out 211, the nation’s leading information and referral system for critical human services, and 988, the national suicide prevention hotline. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission designated 211 as the official national dialing code for human services, and there are currently over 220 call centers operating 211 systems in all 50 states.
The system works. Last year, 211 connected over 18 million individuals across the country to critical community services for housing, utility assistance, food support, mental health services, emergency and disaster response and more, and in 2021, over 21 million people were served by 211 — the most we have ever seen in one year.
In short, 211 is a lifeline for millions of our neighbors who need help.
The HELP Act has the ability to amplify this impact. The 211 Network currently operates across the country with almost no direct federal resources. Even so, 211s have leveraged philanthropic donations to expand their ability to serve communities, offering services in 180 languages as well as via chat, text and email. They have served as the official helpline for 31 states during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as during natural disasters and other emergency events.
With the capacity-building resources included in the HELP Act, 211s would greatly expand their ability to serve even more people, in more ways, while keeping wait times low. Critically, the bill also encourages the diversion of non-emergency calls from 911 to 211 and 988, allowing people to receive the direct help they need when their situations do not call for law enforcement intervention but still require the ease of a three-digit call.
Supporting 211 is also a smart investment that will save money in the long run. Free human services referral systems both take strain away from emergency officials and save federal, state and local dollars by providing human-centered services to individuals and families that are in crisis. That allows folks to get back on their feet more quickly by connecting them not only to available federal social service resources but to state, local and non-governmental programs as well.
The social and mental health supports provided by the HELP Act are the reason why, despite a deeply divided Congress, this bill has earned bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. The HELP Act is an opportunity for Congress to show what we know so well at the United Way: communities are the cornerstone of society.
Our country is strong only when all communities are strong — the HELP ACT is the best way to make that happen.
Angela F. Williams is president and CEO of United Way Worldwide, the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit. A veteran and former federal prosecutor, Williams previously was president and CEO of Easterseals, the nation’s leading nonprofit provider of life-changing disability services, and led as an executive vice president, general counsel, and chief administration officer at the YMCA of the USA.
TAGS 211 988 HELP ACT