Living paycheck to paycheck while hovering just above the poverty line is the reality for 26 percent of families in Hamilton County, according to a recently released report from United Ways of Tennessee, ALICE® in Tennessee: A Financial Hardship Study. This doesn’t include those living below the federal poverty line, who represent another 13 percent of Hamilton County households. That means that 39 percent of our neighbors are unable to make ends meet. Within Chattanooga city limits, that number increases to 47 percent.
ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. An ALICE individual works one or more low wage jobs that keep their income level above the poverty line, so they don’t qualify for government assistance. However, they still don’t have what they need to really “make ends meet”--they do not have money in savings and are one emergency away from having their lives turned upside down. For example, a vehicle breakdown on the way to work--without access to affordable repair services or a second household car--may cost an ALICE individual their job as opposed to just a few hours of missed work.
The ALICE threshold was calculated based on the Household Survival Budget -- an assessment of what it costs to live a very modest life and cover basic needs in Tennessee (in our state, this number is increasing faster than wages). The TN household survival budget was calculated at two levels: for a single adult (a $9.52 hourly wage for a $19,032 annual salary) and for a household with two adults, one infant, and one preschooler (a composite $25.40 hourly wage for a $50,796 annual salary). Households that bring in more at either level do not qualify as ALICE, and neither do those that meet federal poverty standards and receive government assistance.
There’s a good chance you have a friend, acquaintance or neighbor that falls within the ALICE threshold and does not realize it. They are hardworking individuals who, because they are employed, don’t often ask for help--they may even feel that they’re to blame for their household situation. Our ALICE data explains why hardworking people who are doing all the “right” things still face daily instability.
Without ALICE, Tennessee would not be a viable state. ALICE workers hold jobs that are essential to our day-to-day life, such as caring for and educating our children, maintaining our infrastructure, making sure we have food on the shelves in our local grocery store and repairing our cars. The value provided by ALICE is immeasurable--but unfortunately, ALICE jobs are those most vulnerable to automation and are at risk of disappearing. Additionally, there are certain members of our community that are disproportionately likely to fall below the ALICE threshold and struggle with stability, including seniors, Black citizens, Hispanic citizens, single female-headed households, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s important that we bring to light the underlying issues that put our neighbors in these high-strain environments. And it’s important that we help our ALICE neighbors understand their situation, remove shame from the conversation, and advocate for and alongside them. United Way is taking the lead in telling the stories of ALICE families--we want to make sure their voices are heard.
Now in its sixth year, the ALICE report is put out annually by the United Way and features a county by county and state by state breakdown in percentages of households who fall below the ALICE threshold. You can find a copy of the report here.
Moving forward, we need your help to continue to expand the ALICE report. Continue to educate yourselves on ALICE and how it may apply to your neighborhood and your life. And don’t forget to spread the word so that others become aware of and involved in their neighbors’ lives, too--after all, a connected community changes everything. We’ll be talking more about ALICE in the coming weeks here on the blog and in our regular emails, so make sure to sign up if you haven’t had the chance.