Think about the last time you dealt with sudden car troubles. For those living above both the poverty level and the ALICE threshold, car troubles are merely a nuisance. For them, coming up with the money to make necessary car repairs is much less likely to result in job loss, a missed month’s rent (which can lead to eviction), or forgoing needed prescriptions. Yet, for ALICE families, the stress of having to make these kinds of choices can lead to or exacerbate existing medical conditions. ALICE families are used to having to juggle multiple needs and often make sacrifices others couldn’t even imagine having to make just to get by.
At United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc., the working poor are referred to as “ALICE,” or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. People of ALICE households are hardworking and dedicated, yet struggle to stay on top of bills that seem to pile up on a daily basis. These individuals face constant threats to their financial security and stability. Even though ALICE households earn enough money to stay just above the federal poverty level, they do not earn enough to meet all of their basic needs. For these families, the federal poverty level is not a meaningful indicator of their financial status. ALICE families know all too well that coming face to face with something completely outside of their control can be the catalyst for their fast fall from an unforgiving tightrope of financial insecurity.
Although we acknowledge that the face of poverty isn’t what we once assumed it to be, we continue to struggle with maintaining the momentum behind a conversation on how to best help those who work full-time, yet find themselves balancing on the aforementioned tightrope. While great strides have been made to recognize the needs of those who are underprivileged and underserved, there is still more progress to be made in this arena.
Across Clinton, Essex, and Franklin Counties, an average of 15% of the population is living below the federal poverty level. Combine this with an average of 26% of households considered to be ALICE and a more accurate picture of regional poverty starts to become clearer. In the North Country, 41% of the population struggles financially to make ends meet. While we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the issue of poverty as it applies to our communities, employers are uniquely positioned to respond to the working poor in ways that could have the potential to make a great impact. Employers have an opportunity to practice understanding and compassion towards those employees who fall into the ALICE category.
The responsibilities of employers goes beyond ensuring that their employees are paid a livable wage. The goal should be to develop a culture of compassion in the workplace that allows them to challenge their own worldviews in ways that foster an intersectional understanding of the lives of their employees. It is this expansion of perspective on the part of the employer that has the potential to lead to greater flexibility for the employees who need it most. Greater support networks boost employee morale and encourage company loyalty.
Through the ALICE Project, United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. aims to engage the business communities by raising awareness of issues commonly faced by ALICE families. This project has shaped a number of initiatives within the region which aim to make life easier for those who are economically-disadvantaged. For example, in order to assist ALICE employees with transportation issues (a problem that far too often leads to missed shifts and even termination), a number of organizations in Clinton County are working to develop a Wheels-to-Work program. This initiative would help ALICE individuals get back and forth to work safely and consistently, a task that can be quite difficult especially for those living in rural areas without access to their own personal transportation. Additionally, other efforts are being made to address the lack of affordable child care and housing options for ALICE families throughout the region.
Employers in the North Country could benefit from educating themselves on the effects of poverty many of their employees deal with in their private lives. Raising awareness is the first step to supporting the working poor so that they may continue to earn a living and support their families on their own. In order to address issues commonly faced by ALICE individuals, we urge employers to take a more active role in helping to create solutions. Being an ally for the working poor requires compassion for the obstacles they face and a willingness to think outside the box to help hardworking, dedicated employees remain just that.