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Employed and struggling in Md.

By traditional measures, Maryland looks like a prosperous place. Not only is the typical household income here among the highest in the nation, but the poverty rate, at about 10 percent, is among the lowest. But hidden in plain sight are another quarter of the state's households for whom meeting the basic necessities of life is a daily struggle. These are the ALICE families.

A concept developed by researchers at the United Way in New Jersey and now documented in an increasing number of states, including Maryland, the acronym stands for Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Essentially, it's a more descriptive way of conveying the plight of the working poor, one that takes into account localized data about employment conditions and costs of living that aren't considered in conventional measures like the poverty rate. Last fall, the United Way of Central Maryland issued a report showing that a total of 35 percent of Marylanders are living at the ALICE level or below, including more than half a million households that aren't captured by the official federal measure of poverty but who don't make enough to consistently afford subsistence-level housing, child care, health care, food and transportation — much less enough to put away anything in savings.

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On average, a family with two adults, an infant and a preschool-aged child would need to earn more than $61,000 a year to make ends meet — more than double the federal poverty. That amounts to a combined hourly wage of $30.61, or the equivalent of more than three full-time jobs at Maryland's minimum wage.

You encounter people who live below ALICE level every day. Store clerks, janitors, food service workers, secretaries, health care aides. It's whites and minorities, young and old, single and married. And the ALICE population is spread throughout the state. In no Maryland county do less than 22 percent of households meet the definition. Baltimore City has one of Maryland's higher ALICE populations at 45 percent, but Baltimore County, at 40 percent, isn't far behind.

The challenges this group faces are widespread and have profound affects not just on their families but on society as a whole. Housing that is affordable to ALICE households is scarce in general, but finding affordable housing that is safe and offers easy access to jobs and quality schools is all but impossible. Such families are often exposed to environmental hazards like lead paint. Parents often must make long commutes on multiple buses to get to work, often putting their on-time arrival out of their control and hurting their ability to keep a job. Those who have cars may not be able to afford insurance, so they risk fines or the loss of a license — and drive up insurance costs for the rest of us. With access to fresh food difficult and time to prepare it constrained, ALICE families often suffer from chronic health problems like obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Child care for ALICE families can frequently be a bigger expense even than housing, so they are often forced to use unlicensed providers — potentially putting their children behind when they enter kindergarten or, at worst, risking their safety.

And then there is the emotional toll. Such struggles to meet the needs of life every day place a strain on families. Couples who want to raise their children together can find it enormously difficult to do so under those circumstances; eligibility requirements for some assistance programs actually make it to their financial advantage to split up.

The Sun and the United Way of Central Maryland hope to spark a community conversation about the struggles ALICE families face and the public policy and philanthropic initiatives that can help provide them with greater stability and opportunities to get ahead. We will host a Newsmaker Forum to discuss the United Way's ALICE report on Wednesday night from 7-8:30 p.m. at The Sun offices at 501 N. Calvert St. Free registration is available at baltimoresunforum.eventbrite.com. Featured speakers are United Way of Central Maryland President and CEO Franklyn Baker, University of Maryland Baltimore President Dr. Jay Perman and Center for Urban Families Founer, President and CEO Joe Jones.

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