ALICE Project shows 1 in 3 households struggle



Two decades of growth in Williamson County have hidden from view an underlying economic problem for many residents.

A slightly lower unemployment rate than the state and a median annual household income more than $25,000 above the state average creates a sense of prosperity for all. However, 32 percent of county residents fall into a perilous economic category where one stroke of bad luck could mean financial disaster.

The ALICE (Asset Limited Income Restrained Employee) Project sheds light on the portion of the population that may not live in poverty, but continues to struggle to make ends meet from one month to the next. And the United Way of Williamson County wants to use the data to help people understand the needs that exist right here in the county.

“A lot of people think that those who are struggling are in the poverty level and they have an idea of what that person looks like in that they’re not working,” said Jodee O’Brien, Chief Executive Officer for the United Way of Williamson County. “This is to really get people to come together to understand it is our neighbors, it is people who are actually working, especially in Williamson County where it is growing so fast and the cost of living is going up and wages aren’t always catching up.”

The report shows there are more than 12,000 ALICE households in Cedar Park, Leander and Liberty Hill.

“It’s Georgetown, it’s Cedar Park, it’s Liberty Hill, it’s everywhere,” O’Brien said. “It’s not just a rural problem or an urban problem. It is definitely a county-wide thing we need to address.”

The Texas ALICE Report tracks struggling Texas households, using Census information and real-time data on income and expenses. Texas is one of 17 states participating in the project, which began in New Jersey in 2009.

One of the goals was to step back from the simple threshold of poverty and take a deeper look at the financial struggles of many Texans.

The poverty rate in Williamson County – at 5 percent – is the lowest it has been since before the recession, but the number of people who fit the definition of ALICE increased from 17 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2016.

“That’s where you hear we really don’t have the poverty issue in Williamson County,” O’Brien said. “The poverty level is so low, the federal threshold is so low, but it is getting people to know that the poverty level is one thing but if we would come together with the ALICE population we are going to be helping those in poverty as well.”

The rising costs of living – in rent and mortgages, auto expenses, childcare and healthcare in particular – are putting a growing financial strain on ALICE households as wages often don’t keep pace.

“The ALICE population is one flat tire away from that poverty level. One health emergency or one hurricane away from trouble,” O’Brien said. “They don’t have savings, they don’t have education savings for their kids and they are struggling with day-to-day needs.”

The gap in services is one way O’Brien said the United Way hopes to address needs identified for the ALICE population, using the data to identify areas where nonprofits can help.

“A lot of these people make enough money that they don’t get any subsidies,” she said. “But there are other programs. At the United Way we try to work with nonprofits and figure out where some of those gaps are and help them so that they can find that childcare that’s going to help them get through a tough time.

“A lot of it is looking at the data and being able to say this is a need and this is where they are really struggling,” she said. “We know childcare is an area where people may be struggling, so how can we fill in the gaps and how can we make sure those services are out there through other nonprofits?”

The face of the ALICE household is not one-dimensional, and includes all ages, families and single adults.

“These are the people really making our economy work, but they’re struggling,” she said. “We also have an older population in ALICE too now that they’re living on a fixed income and the cost of living is going up. It is really a broad range what that person looks like, it is not that typical image of someone sitting on their couch just taking subsidies and not trying. These people are really trying.”

Knowing who the people are who fall into the ALICE category is key, and remembering that those in service industries often fall into this range.

“It is knowing when you go to a restaurant and someone is relying on your tips, know that your waitress is not making minimum wage because she’s a server,” O’Brien said. “You know that person could really use that tip because they’re living on that.”

A key portion of the ALICE report is the survival budget. Even when an individual or family earn well above the poverty level, they can easily fall into the category of not being able to save money for emergencies, retirement or future education costs.

The survival budget for an individual is $1,887 per month, which means they must earn $11.32 per hour just to meet that minimum threshold of covering housing, food, transportation and healthcare costs. The budget for a family of four is $5,371 per month, meaning they must earn more than $64,000 per year to meet the survival need.

Regardless of the situation families find themselves in, O’Brien said recognizing the challenge and seeking help – through the United Way or other nonprofit organizations – is the first step for ALICE households.

“I would say the hardest part is being able to admit you might need some help, however that looks in your world, and maybe going to your nonprofit, or faith-based organization,” she said. “They have to know they’re not alone. Often they feel they are alone and just not doing something right and that’s why they’re not succeeding but it is nationwide. It is a crazy time right now that’s for sure.”