Imagine having to make tough financial choices every day, choices like: Do I buy medicine or groceries with the money I have left? Do I fix my car so I can get to work, or pay my rent to keep from losing my home? Do I leave my kids home alone so I can take a night job that offers health benefits?

Odds are, you know someone who is faced with choices like these. Perhaps you once had to make these decisions — or even find yourself facing them now.

United Way recently released a report that gives an identity and voice to people who work hard, yet struggle to make ends meet. These people are called ALICE.

ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE is the person who waits on tables, fixes cars, scans groceries and cares for elderly and young people. Cashiers, administrative assistants, laborers, security guards — they’re ALICE.

Survival Threshold

ALICE represents a growing number of individuals and families who are working, but who live paycheck to paycheck, most often with nothing left over for an unexpected event, such as an illness, a car repair or a job loss. Their earnings are not enough to support a Survival Budget that is more than twice the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), which does not accurately reflect current, local costs of living.
The United Way report revealed that in Howard County, 22% of households live at or below the ALICE threshold. That percentage jumps to 34% in Savage, 29% in North Laurel and 28% in Elkridge.
A family of two adults and two children requires an ALICE Survival Budget of $61,224, far above the FPL of $23,850. This Survival Budget covers only the most basic and necessary of expenses: food, housing, health care, transportation, child care and taxes. For a single adult, the FPL is $11,670; for a single ALICE adult, an annual budget of $23,568 is required to meet basic needs. For ALICE, one emergency can spiral into a crisis.

In contrast, the ALICE Stability Budget—the amount needed to support and sustain a household over time that includes savings, a mobile phone and modest miscellaneous expenses—is $39,030 for an individual and $121,656 for a family of four.

The report also reveals that low-wage jobs dominate the state economy, with most paying between $10 and $15 per hour (or $30,000 per year at $15 per hour).

A Case Study

Heather is a working mom with three children who’s finding it harder and harder to make ends meet for her family. Heather makes $16.50 an hour as a front desk manager in a dental practice. A new baby boy means that her family’s already tight budget must stretch even further. Day care for her son and daughter is more than $1,500 month, and the rent on their 700-square-foot apartment was just raised.

Heather recently returned to work after six weeks of unpaid maternity leave. “I started saving up when I learned I was pregnant so I could take some time off after the baby came, but the money ran out — and I can’t afford not to work. And lately it seems like groceries and other things have just gotten more expensive.”

Heather left her previous job when a raise was not forthcoming. “I worked there for five years and was never late; never took a sick day.” Like her old job, her new job doesn’t offer any benefits other than free cleanings and minor dental work for her and her family. It does pay 50 cents more an hour and helps with the household income, but, she said, “We make too much to get help, but not enough to survive.” She and her boyfriend drive for Uber when not working their full-time jobs to help bring in some much-needed extra money.
“I’m not the kind of person who doesn’t pay my bills — I stay on top of them. But it’s not hard to get behind with the day care and health care bills.”

Strengthened Support

United Way commissioned the ALICE report to fully understand and best respond to the needs of ALICEs like Heather. The findings will be used to strengthen existing programs and to create new, sustainable initiatives that will, in collaboration with United Way partner agencies and others, improve the lives of all ALICE individuals and families in Maryland.

United Way of Central Maryland has long addressed the needs of ALICE through its Family Stability programming. There are currently 15 sites — two of which are located in Howard County — offering families a variety of services to help them get back on their feet. These Family Stability sites are strategically located in neighborhoods with high rates of evictions, and call into United Way’s 2-1-1 helpline that connects callers — many of them ALICE — with important health and human services resources.

“Basic needs like housing, employment and health should not be hopes and dreams,” said United Way of Central Maryland’s president and CEO Franklyn Baker. “The ALICE Report gives a face to our Howard County neighbors in need. We must address ALICE for the economic well-being of all of our residents.”

Sandy Monck is senior vice president and chief impact officer for the United Way of Central Maryland. She can be reached at [email protected].