United Way releases new ALICE Report, into COVID’s shadow

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

Image courtesy of United Way

According to the United Way’s just-released 2020 ALICE Report, 61% of households in Harrisonburg struggle to make ends meet.

While that represents a 4% drop from the first ALICE report, published in 2017, Harrisonburg still has one of the highest rates of ALICE households in Virginia. The metric – which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – is designed to quantify economic vulnerability in a community, and includes people whose limited incomes forces them into “tough choices, such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent,” according the project’s website.

After Harrisonburg’s introduction to ALICE several years ago, the concept entered the public lexicon, became a focal point in local political campaigns and emerged as a feature of decision-making for local nonprofits and the city council. Because the 2020 report, released last week, is based on two-year-old data it does not reflect efforts to help the local ALICE population in recent years. Furthermore, its release during the COVID-19 pandemic means it likely paints a rosier picture than is now the case.

Laura Toni-Holsinger, Executive Director for the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County (or UWHR), said ALICE has been redefined over the past few months.

“I think it’s really clear to most people that the new term for ALICE is essential workers,” Toni-Holsinger said. “There are plenty of essential workers who don’t fall below the ALICE threshold, but there are certainly many that do, and it’s been an interesting term to apply to people who have been deemed essential to keep our economy going, and at the same time might be struggling to support their families.”

Just as the first ALICE Report in 2017 consisted of 2015 data, every subsequent report will reflect at least a two-year lag. Even with potentially outdated numbers, Toni-Holsinger said the new report conveys an urgency given the pandemic’s economic impact.

“If we know what the data was before the pandemic, and we know ALICE was hit hard by it, then the only logical conclusion, even though we don’t have exact numbers, is ALICE is struggling even more,” Toni-Holsinger said. “I think that’s not at all a far-fetched way to infer what is happening.”

In 2018, after the release of the first ALICE report, a series of community conversations on the topic were held in Harrisonburg. Photo by Calvin Pynn.

The ALICE Threshold is defined in the report as the average income needed afford a “Household Survival Budget.” According to the report, a family with two adults and two school-aged children in Harrisonburg would need to bring in $5,183 per month, while two adults with two children in childcare would need to bring in $6,312 in order to make ends meet.

People who fall below the ALICE threshold are often employed in hourly jobs and may have experienced reduced hours or full job loss during the pandemic. In addition, limited access to healthcare and childcare have been likely become even bigger problems for the city’s ALICE population over the past few months.

“Many children will be learning virtually this year, or at least to start off the school year based on the proposed plans right now, which means a lot of parents are scrambling to figure out where their kids will be during the day for school, but they also have to work,” Toni-Holsinger said. “While we didn’t already have enough childcare spots, that was already a difficult issue, now we have a higher demand and a lower supply. So, in the context of a family below the ALICE threshold, not only is the supply lower, but if your financial resources are limited, then you’re already going to have fewer options that you can go after.”

Demographic data included with the latest report show that nearly 80% of single-mother households with children in Harrisonburg fall under the ALICE threshold. In addition, 67% percent of Hispanic households, 66% of Black households and 59% of white households meet the criteria for ALICE (those figures include people living beneath the federal poverty line, which is significantly below the ALICE threshold).

Local United Way staff are in the early stages of interpreting the 2020 ALICE report, including why the percentage of the ALICE population was slightly smaller than the 2017 report. According to Tashfia Hasan, the community impact coordinator for UWHR, one reason could be that not everyone is accounted for, as there are a number of undocumented immigrant households in Harrisonburg that fall under the ALICE threshold.

“Particularly in our community, not having data around people with undocumented status is going to have a pretty significant impact on how we gauge numbers and the true needs,” Hasan said.

The push to help Harrisonburg’s ALICE population began in the spring 2018 with the first of several community conversations, during which community leaders and nonprofits, and educators brainstormed ways to support that segment of the population. That led to the formation of the ALICE Coalition in 2019, which has continued to meet during the pandemic.

The latest ALICE report was originally scheduled for publication in March, but was delayed by the pandemic. Although we won’t know COVID-19’s true impact on people living below the ALICE threshold for another couple years, Hasan said the percentage will likely be bigger.

“We really anticipate those ALICE numbers growing in our community,” Hasan said. “The timing of the report is a little bit unfortunate.”

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