Much of the working poor in Southern Maryland are experiencing financial hardships in these tough economic times. According to the United Way, 35 percent of Maryland households struggle to afford basic household necessities.
The United Way recently used a series of standardized measurements called the ALICE — Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed — report to provide an in-depth look at countywide poverty and presented its data during a webinar on Jan. 9. According to the report, 25 percent of people in Charles County are ALICE, while 7 percent of Charles County residents are already living in poverty.
ALICE is a United Way acronym which represents the growing number of individuals and families who are working, but still unable to afford the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, health care or transportation.
“United Way came together to give an identity and voice to people who work every day, yet struggle to make ends meet,” said Franklyn Baker, president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland. “We all know ALICE. ALICE is the hard-worker who waits on our table, fixes our car, rings us up at the grocery store and cares for our elderly and young. ALICE earns more than the federal poverty level but not quite enough to keep pace with the cost of living, and faces tough financial choices. While living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency can spiral into crisis for ALICE.”
The ALICE numbers throughout the county include Waldorf at 34 percent; Cobb Island at 40 percent; Bryantown at 45 percent; Indian Head at 46 percent; and Bryans Road at 37 percent. Mike Bellis, the local United Way executive director, said those are the people who are working every day, not getting ahead, and not living the “American dream.”
Dr. Stephanie Hoopes, lead researcher and director of the United Way ALICE project, has used the report to more accurately measure financial hardship in states across the country like New Jersey, Ohio and Florida. With cashiers and retail workers being two of the top occupations in the state, she believes that jobs play a major role in the data outcome.
“We measure the basic costs to live and work in a modern economy in the state of Maryland, specifically by county. I hope by looking at this list of data others will think about the ALICEs that they know. These are really people in our communities that are essential to the function of the economy. In terms of percent of households below the ALICE threshold, Maryland is No. 3, behind Iowa and Washington,” Hoopes said.
The Economic Viability Dashboard evaluates community conditions for ALICE in three core areas, on a scale of one (worse) to 100 (better). Charles County received a 31 (poor) in housing affordability, 56 (good) in job opportunities, and 61 (good) in community resources.
The United Way of Charles County is trying to get ahead of the situation. Bellis said the organization plans to stabilize ALICE families through programming outreach and services in order to see a longterm, systemic change.
“Our score for housing affordability is not only a poor score but it is also the lowest score in the state of Maryland. We have a lot of work to do and we can no longer talk about the problem or have anecdotal conversation about the problem,” Bellis said. “It’s clear that we’re coming in last and we have a lot of work to do on both programmatic and policy standpoint to ensure that people have a fair and equitable access to affordable housing.”
Gilbert Bowling, chairman of the United Way of Charles County board of directors, said it was startling to see that Charles County was ranked the lowest in Maryland in the area of housing affordability. He said it is no coincidence that three of the five areas that have the highest ALICE numbers are major areas in the western part of the county, which is an area pretty polarized as far as jobs and economic growth.
“I believe real policy change and jobs is what’s going to bring us out of this. It’s great that we can do so many wonderful things — have parks and trails — but if our people in this county can’t afford to take off of work to enjoy the amenities that we provide, then what are we really doing? We need to find better ways to help them make a better living,” Bowling said.
According to United Way, there are so many ALICE households in Maryland because low-wage jobs dominate the state’s economy, the basic cost of living outpaces wages and jobs are not located near affordable housing. Though public and private assistance helps, it doesn’t provide financial stability.
“The household survival budget also stood out to me,” Bellis said. “Our annual total for a family of four with one infant and one preschooler is $74,688. That is third highest score in the state of Maryland. People are being priced out of living in Charles County and we are tied with Calvert County for being ridiculously expensive to live in. A single adult needs $31,536 to survive. There’s not a lot of opportunity for families to get ahead.”
The United Way of Charles County plans to use the reports as the framework to improve and strengthen the lives of ALICE families in the county, with additional help from community partners, grants and an outreach specialist being brought on staff.