If the road through life was smooth, roadblocks and potholes would be unemployed. You could put yourself on cruise control, sit back and enjoy the ride. For a few of us, the road seems just that way, but for many, it has a few roadblocks and potholes that they need to maneuver around. For some though, the road is rough, uneven and full of obstacles that can cause detours, delays and dysfunction. In some cases, the challenges that hinder gainful employment can have a negative effect on not only the families themselves, but also the employers and businesses that depend on them.
The stresses of financial instability can often create barriers for families throughout the Adirondack Region. Daily life is shaped by decisions and actions that are sometimes focused on simply getting through the day, meeting basic needs and keeping the car on the road. Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) is a growing demographic of hard working, well intended families. In many cases, they live above the federal poverty limit, thus hindering their eligibility for assistance, but usually are below a threshold that would allow them to be financially independent. This gap creates situations that have thousands of families living on the edge of the financial cliff.
In some cases, barriers interfere with a person’s ability to even accept a job, let alone be successful at it. There can be many factors that hinder the process, but some of the more common are usually centered around the cost and availability of childcare and a lack of reliable transportation options. Furthermore, in some cases, gainful employment can cause a decrease or elimination of subsidies that families have come to count on to help them stay afloat. Increased income, even at a good paying job is, at times, detrimental due to losses in food, housing and childcare assistance. These programs are tied to income and can be decreased or eliminated when a family is slightly over the income guidelines. But again, the additional income of the job does not necessarily compensate for the lost resources, sometimes leaving families in a tighter spot than before they took the job.
Those of us fortunate enough to have a buffer between ourselves and the financial cliff would be wise to understand that perspectives can vary from our own. Life is very different for people who are faced with the stresses of financial instability. Flat tires, leaky roofs and broken furnaces are inconveniences for many of us, but they can be catastrophic for some, when faced with having to make critical decisions around keeping food on the table, keeping the car on the road or going without medication, for example.
In response, ALICE families have adapted to using human capital in place of monetary capital for the sake of mere survival. They depend on each other to help with things like childcare, car repairs, rides, and counseling in lieu of the expensive alternative of seeking professional services.
The networks are often extensive and they depend on doing favors when needed and seeking the return when necessary. One friend might have a set of tires they are willing to trade for a week of childcare, while another might offer rides to work for a baby crib they need. Many ALICE families depend on each other in times of need, since they don’t have a checking account or credit card to fall back on. This system of support is not unlike the early days of our region when neighbors had to depend on each other, long before monetary resources were available to common people.
As employers, we need to understand the stresses that some in our workforce are facing and have empathy for what drives their decisions and actions. Their lens is not necessarily the same as our lens and the world may look very different to the person standing next to us.
If the road through life was smooth and even, road blocks and potholes would be unemployed. We are wise to understand where they exist and to help each other steer around them or plow through. It’s how we roll!
John Bernardi is the President and CEO at United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. For more information about ALICE, please visit www.unitedwayadk.org.