Nearly half of St. Joseph county households struggling

Author: Madeline Buckley, South Bend Tribune

Posted originaly in the South Bend Tribune on Monday, November 10, 2014 6:00 am | Updated: 6:46 am, Mon Nov 10, 2014.

A single mother supporting two children may work two part-time jobs. She does not have a car, so she is limited in where she can work. Her income falls above the federal poverty line. It puts a roof over the heads of her and her children, and usually gets food on the table. But she cannot grow a savings account. An unexpected expense could throw the family into chaos. She has to skimp on child care and health care.

The hypothetical family is just one example of a segment of the population that lives above the poverty line but struggles to meet basic needs — a group that, along with those living below the poverty line, includes almost half of the households in St. Joseph County. 

United Way in St. Joseph County partnered with other branches throughout the country and the Rutgers University-Newark School of Public Affairs to produce a study released today that shines a light on working families living in near poverty. The study uses an acronym to describe the households: ALICE, or Asset, Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

"They live on a fragile edge trying to keep everything stable," said Bonnie Bazata, executive director of the county's Bridge Out of Poverty Initiative.

The struggling households can constitute a working single adult, or families headed by one or two working parents. The group is often left out of conversations about poverty that often focus on the unemployed and most destitute. 

But with 25 percent of the households in the county falling in that range — and another 15 percent falling below the poverty line — advocacy groups are expanding their focus.

"The ALICE families are working hard, but falling short," said Karen Sommers, vice president for community investment at United Way of St. Joseph County.

Sommers said the county's United Way got involved with Rutgers after the university produced a similar study focused on New Jersey. United Way branches in a number of states then commissioned their own studies. 

This study looks broadly at Indiana, and also breaks out county results. It determined most jobs in Indiana cannot support the cost of living needed to create a stable household.

In Indiana, about 20 percent of the population lives in ALICE households and another 13 percent lives below the poverty line, meaning about a third of the population lives at or below the ALICE threshold.

But in the South Bend city limits, 45 percent of the households lives at or below the ALICE threshold.

The study also examined how much it costs to survive in St. Joseph County, a number that does not include savings, cell phones, car repairs, clothes or any indulgences.

For a single adult, the survival budget falls around $18,077. It climbs to $46,354 for a family of four.

In contrast, the study says a budget that enables self-sufficiency comes to about $82,000 for a family of four in Indiana.

Sommers said she hopes to use the data to explore ways to better serve those families or individuals with focuses such as reliable transportation, financial education, quality and affordable child care, housing affordability and job opportunities.

"We need to convene all sectors of the community, the city, the county, nonprofits and the business community," Sommers said. 

Bazata said Bridges Out of Poverty is currently working with United Way to come up with creative ways to solve the transportation problem many local workers have.

"If you don't have a car, it can be hard to impossible to get to a second or third shift," Bozata said.

The groups also try to help families organize finances with budgeting and financial classes.

"A lot of families have too much debt and no plan to reduce the debt," Bozata said.

Ultimately, though, community advocates said the county needs to think of the problem as a communitywide economic development issue.

"If you help families stabilize, it turns them into taxpayers, and consumers," Bozata said. "We need to frame this problem as a wider conversation about community sustainability."