The Baltimore Sun co-sponsored a Newsmaker Forum with United Way to discuss ALICE families, households for whom meeting basic necessities of life is a daily struggle. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
Maryland's working poor face myriad obstacles to better employment and have difficulty making ends meet, despite having jobs that pay better than minimum wage, civic and education leaders said at a forum Wednesday evening sponsored by The Baltimore Sun and the United Way of Central Maryland.
The forum was based on a report on Maryland released in January by the United Way, which has done similar studies on the working poor in other states in the past.
In 2012, the United Way began studying a population it calls ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The ALICE population are low-income workers such as administrative assistants, cashiers and restaurant employees who are one car breakdown or emergency room visit away from financial crisis.
The forum, attended by about 30 people, was held at The Sun's Calvert Street headquarters. The panel was led by The Sun's editorial page editor, Andrew Green, and consisted of University of Maryland, Baltimore President Jay Perman, United Way of Central Maryland President and CEO Franklyn Baker, and Center for Urban Families founder and CEO Joe Jones.
"ALICE is a person that every single person in this room knows," Baker said. "These are people who are working hard every day, but they don't make enough to make ends meet."
Officially, the Maryland report defined them as people making less than a "survival budget" based on the average cost of living in the area, but more than the federal poverty line.
Jones said the ALICE population lacks a support system, such as family members who could bail them out in times of crisis. And he said they are easily preyed upon by unscrupulous tax preparers or payday lenders.
The report, written by Stephanie Hoopes, found that 743,738 households, or 35 percent of households in Maryland, struggled to afford basic household necessities in 2014. People of color were disproportionately more likely to struggle to make ends meet, according to the report.
In Baltimore, 238,897 households, or 45 percent, were considered ALICE or were below the poverty line.
More than half of jobs in Maryland pay less than $20 an hour, with most paying $10 to $15 an hour, the report found. Yet the average survival budget for a family of four with an infant and a preschooler is $61,000.
The report also found that since 2007, the basic cost of living has risen while the number of jobs that can support basic household necessities have decreased.
In 13 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions, ALICE and very low-income people made up 35 percent of the population or more. Those jurisdictions included Baltimore City and Baltimore County, as well as counties in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
The low wages translate into families living in substandard housing or far from their jobs, resulting in less productive workers, the report found. Children may receive substandard child care, the food the family eats may be less healthy, and preventive health care may be skipped as low-income workers forgo health insurance.
Perman said being among the working poor can harm one's health in many ways, from children getting asthma from living in housing with roaches and mice to people lacking access to transportation for doctor's appointments.
Perman, a pediatric gastroenterologist who still sees patients every week, said he recently treated a child with a chronic medical condition whose mother had lost her job and then her car. The mother wasn't a bad parent, he said, but lacked the means to keep the child healthy.
"Being poor, having an inadequate income, is not good for one's health," he said. "One's health is very much related to one's ZIP code, to where you live."
Jones called Baltimore a "transportation desert" because it lacked the public transit infrastructure of Washington or New York. And working families trying to shuttle in between their homes, child care and work, can lose valuable family time, he said.
"It hurts your heart when you see somebody trying so damn hard and the odds are stacked against them," he said.