Mendoza School of Business

WORKING POOR: Forty percent of people struggling to make ends meet

Published: May 6, 2015 / Author: Patrick Roth


A new report by the United Way created a new way of looking at socioeconomics and created a whole new category.

It’s called ALICE, Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. 

They are people who have jobs and are technically above the federal poverty level, but they’re one accident away from sliding into poverty.

“It seemed like the money ran away from me,” said Rain Adams, describing her struggle to make ends meet. “I would literally like, you’d cry sometimes. You’d be so depressed that you didn’t have anything left over. I would cry. I’d be like ‘Okay, something has to change. Something has to change.'”

That’s the situation that Rain Adams finds herself in. She has a steady income, but sometimes, it’s not enough to keep up with her expenses. It’s something she has in common with a lot of people in St. Joseph County.  

Even though the unemployment rate is only 6.4 percent – 15 percent of households live below the federal poverty rate, meaning they make less than $23,050 a year.

But a new report by the United Way found that the problem here in St. Joseph County is much bigger than that.

“Unfortunately, we have folks that are living below the federal poverty guidelines and then we have another, larger group of folks that are ALICE families,” said Karen Sommers, the executive director for the United Way of St. Joseph County.

“So if you take the ALICE families, and those folks who are living in poverty, that’s 40 percent of our population,” she said.

ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, meaning essentially they’re the working poor.

“What it’s saying is those families are in a very precarious situation,” said Bonnie Bazata, the executive director of St. Joseph County Bridges out of Poverty. “It could be one paycheck away, it’s a very stressful place for families to be.”

“Sometimes it’s just hard to save for those emergency situations,” Adams said. “I’m concerned about that. If things like that happen, I’m in trouble a little bit.”

A major problem is that here in St. Joseph County, the average income is not keeping up with typical expenses.

“For, let’s say gas for a week is about $70,” Adams said. “Car payments for a week is about $105. Insurance is taken out, that’s like a $100 or so…ooh, that’s like a quick two, three hundred dollars a week.”

“So with $23,000, federal poverty level, it’s impossible to survive, it’s impossible,” said Georges Enderle, an economics professor with the University of Notre Dame. “But even with double that amount, $46,000, it’s still hard.”

In fact – when you factor in things like housing, child care, food, and transportation in St. Joseph County, a no frills budget for a family of four, is about $46,000 a year.

That’s a problem.

Because the average household income in the county is only $45,000 a year, and this has a been a problem for a while now.

If you go back to 1990, the average household income was $28,000, but that was the equivalent of making $50,000 today. So even though total income has gone up in recent years, its total buying power has decreased by almost $10,000 since 2000.

In the face of those numbers – it’s easy to wonder if this problem can be fixed.

“I have the strongest belief in people’s capacity to change,” Bazata said. “We work with people in poverty and I see tremendous strength and determination. We work with community leaders and community partners, and I see great resources and resiliency and I firmly believe we can find effective solutions in our community.”

“There are lots of things going on,” Enderle added. “And I think, actually, we are in good shape to do much more.”

Watch this story on the WSBT-TV website