Luke Benson left home at 17, right after finishing high school, and relished living out on his own. Having trained in electrical work and machine maintenance, he's always enjoyed his self-sufficiency.
But today, at age 35, Benson and his 9-year-old son have moved back in with his parents in Westminster. He's not a recent college graduate saddled with debt but without a job — in fact, he's well employed as an electrician making $20 an hour. But the cost of living?
"If I was to move out of my parents' house with just me and my son, I wouldn't be able to afford the rent, the food, everything all on my own," Benson said. "Everybody I know lives week to week, and you're counting on that check."
There was a time when Benson might have been described simply as "working class," but according to a new report published Jan. 11 by the United Way, that term is too vague to really do justice to the reality of people like Benson, who are well above the federal poverty line and yet have difficulty affording the basics in life. Designated as ALICE — Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed — these are the hardworking people, from construction workers like Benson to home health care workers, who make communities tick, according to Stephanie Hoopes, the lead researcher on the United Way ALICE report.
"Probably by the time you got to work today you would run into many ALICEs," Hoopes said. "You dropped your kid off at child care, you went to the bank and saw the teller, you had to have your car fixed and you met the mechanic, or you may have parked your car in a garage and met the security guard. There are touch points throughout our day when we interact with these people — I just bought my coffee from ALICE probably."
In Maryland, about 35 percent of households, about 750,000 families, fit the ALICE definition. Carroll County does somewhat better, at 23 percent of households, though that still adds up to just more than 16,000 families who, like Benson, work hard but see little way to get ahead without taking cost-cutting measures, such as moving back into his parents' home.
"I used to have a [Chevy Tahoe] and I got 15 miles to the gallon. Because I am in construction, I had to drive to different job sites all day and I was using hundreds of dollars in gas," Benson said. "I ended up getting rid of that and getting a little tiny Honda hatchback because it gets 50 miles to the gallon. I am finding ways to cut corners everywhere I can."
Unlike the federal poverty level, which is the same all across the country and without reference to the cost of living — in 2017, $11,880 in annual income for a single adult, and $24,300 for a family of four — the ALICE report takes into account the cost of living in Maryland, and in each Maryland county, to present two measures of what kind of income it takes to get by.
The ALICE Survival Budget, according to Hoopes, is the amount of money necessary to financially tread water and stay afloat — a break-even amount of income and the threshold of the ALICE demographic.
"It is the bare minimum just to get up every day and go to work," Hoopes said. "It is in no way a get-ahead budget, in no way a plan for your future budget or have an emergency budget. There are no savings."
In Carroll County, the ALICE Survival Budget threshold for a single adult is $25,344, more than twice the federal poverty level. A single father with one child like Benson just crosses the survival threshold at $39,468, while a family of four needs to earn $62,568 per year, before accounting for child care — which raises that amount to $68,520.
That budget takes into account the average costs to a Carroll County family, such as the monthly bills of $1,252 in rent and $701 in food for that family of four that the federal poverty limit, at $24,300, does not.
The ALICE Stability Budget, on the other hand, marks the amount of income a Carroll family needs, if not to thrive, then at least to begin building a financial cushion, according to Hoopes.
"You can live on that, you can have a cute place, you can have savings and invest a little bit," she said. "You can maybe have a down payment on a mortgage or send a kid to college. Not all of them, but it at least provides something that you could work with over time."
The ALICE Stability Budget amounts to $37,044 for a single adult, $73,680 for a single adult with one child and $115,788 for a family of four, in terms of annual income.
The ALICE Survival Budget is typically lower than some other cost of living/income measures, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage, and the ALICE Stability Budget is a bit higher, according to Hoopes, the result being the definition of a fairly broad range of people in a community who are working, but struggling, while making what is often several times the federal poverty level. The idea is not to argue for any particular course of action, she said, but to provide communities with new tools for understanding the lives of their fellow citizens, or themselves.
"It originally started in a county fairly similar to Carroll County — Morris County, New Jersey — where the property rates were fairly low and there are a fair number of wealthy households and so people were wondering why there was so much demand for social services and grants," Hoopes said. "There are no policy recommendations from the report and that is done on purpose — we really want people from all different political parties to recognize this is some good data and we can use this in our planning going forward."
That's exactly what has Angela Gustus, executive director of Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc., excited about the ALICE report. HSP provides a lot of services for those who have slipped into homelessness, such as the Carroll County Cold Weather Shelter, but the nonprofit also does a lot of work with people who fit the ALICE description, including workforce development and the Family Stability Initiative, which helps keep ALICE families on the edge in their homes. HSP already collaborates with the United Way on some programs, and Gustus said the ALICE report will help in the focused delivery of those programs.
"It helps us a lot as it relates to understanding what a sustainable job or wage would be for someone in Carroll County," she said. "Through our workforce development programming, as we are looking for other agencies to partner with and helping people to find jobs, to have a good understanding of what sufficiency would look like really — it helps us to put that in perspective."
The ALICE report will make a useful conceptual tool for the Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County as well, according to Executive Director Dorothy Fox.
"It gives us not only another tool, but it allows us to put a name to what we've known is out there but we haven't been able to really grasp," she said. "They are a lot of the people we see in Carroll County."
Given the partnership's focus on health, Fox said she was taken by how the ALICE Survival Budget makes clear the way working families often walk along a knife's edge with their finances, with any slip, however minor, holding the capacity to open a wound spilling red ink, inevitably leading to more physical wounds as well.
"It could be something as simple as a fender-bender car accident, that's all it would be to us, but to them they just lost their transportation, it's highly likely they will lose their job, which could make it highly likely they will lose their health insurance," Fox said. "If they can't afford their grocery bill, their nutrition is impacted and that causes a health issue, so you can see how everything kind of feeds off of the other."
Armed with a new conception and understanding of how many people are struggling in Carroll County, Fox believes it will be possible to better target ALICE families so they get the help they need to remain employed, housed and out of the social safety net.
"It's going to allow us to focus on that ALICE group just as much as we have been able to focus on some other groups," Fox said. "I really do see that as something we can work toward, preserving those families and what they have and I think that's going to be a great part of what this will bring to our county."
In the meantime, the local ALICE will keep working and doing what they have to do to get by. For Benson, that means living in a new normal.
"At this point, I'm almost happier living at home with my parents," he said. "I have help here. Having help is incredible."
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