Pandemic intensifies struggle for Shenandoah Valley’s working poor, survey shows

Graphic from the United for ALICE COVID-19 Impact Survey for the Shenandoah Valley.

By Eric Gorton, contributor

Families who live paycheck to paycheck are having the hardest time making it through the pandemic, according to a recent United Way survey seeking insight into the pandemic’s impact on Shenandoah Valley families.

Conducted from October 19 to November 7 by the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County (UWHR), United Way of Northern Shenandoah Valley (based in Winchester) and United Way of Front Royal-Warren County, more than 1,800 people submitted valid answers to the survey that could be filled out online or on paper. Altogether, 2,415 responses were received, but surveys taken by people outside the area served by the three United Way agencies were among those deemed invalid.

Although neither surprising nor statistically significant for the region due to the type of survey, UWHR Executive Director Laura Toni-Holsinger characterized the results as valuable.

“It helps us to get a better sense of what the most pressing needs are,” she said. “We do have a good comparison of people who are both above and below the ALICE Threshold.”

ALICE is an acronym used to describe individuals and families who are “Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed.” People in this group earn above the federal poverty level but are still unable to cover the basics of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and technology in the counties where they live.

The most recent ALICE Report for the Harrisonburg area came out in the summer, but consisted of data gathered from federal, state and local sources well before the pandemic started. It showed that 41% of households in the region fell below the ALICE Threshold (a figure that also including those who fall below the federal poverty line).

To complement that report and cast some light on the pandemic’s effect on the local ALICE population, the national United for ALICE project created the fall survey, which was offered to United Way agencies in 21 states that belong to the ALICE partnership.

“Part of the reason they did this separate survey to compliment the ALICE Report was because we wanted something with this new data. Obviously, the world has changed dramatically now that we’re in this pandemic,” Toni-Holsinger said.

UWHR has the raw data for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County but has yet to analyze it. UWHR and the other two Shenandoah Valley United Way agencies contracted with the national United for ALICE project to get the survey analysis for the Shenandoah Valley region, with funding support from Blue Ridge Community College and Lord Fairfax Community College, Toni-Holsinger said.

Toni-Holsinger said 234 of the valid surveys were completed by residents of Harrisonburg and 434 by residents of Rockingham County.

Graphic from the United for ALICE COVID-19 Impact Survey for the Shenandoah Valley.

COVID-19 infection, childcare top list of respondents’ worries

The greatest concern among all respondents, whether above or below the ALICE Threshold, was contracting COVID-19. Answering a question asking in general about concerns during the pandemic and allowing respondents to choose multiple answers, 73% checked, “Contracting COVID-19.” Rounding out the top three concerns among all respondents were childcare/education (48%) and mental health issues (46%).

The analysis states that respondents below the ALICE Threshold were significantly more likely than respondents above the threshold to say they were concerned about child care, 54% vs. 45%, paying housing costs, 54% vs. 13%, and providing enough food for the household, 45% vs. 7%.

When respondents were asked to select their biggest concern, the top three responses overall were household members contracting COVID-19 (41%), child care/education (19%), and paying housing expenses (12%).

The analysis states that respondents below the ALICE Threshold were significantly more likely than those above it to say their biggest concern was paying housing costs, 26% vs. 4%.

More tenuous employment

At the time of the survey, 88% of respondents’ households had income from one or more jobs and 60% stated their employment hadn’t changed for any household members since March 1. Respondents below the ALICE Threshold were significantly more likely to say someone in their household lost a job during the pandemic, however – 23% vs. 7%. This group was also more likely to have someone in the household temporarily laid off (18% vs. 10%) or changed jobs (14% vs. 9%.) They were also more likely to say someone in their household had income from unemployment insurance or another government program (9% vs. 2%).

The survey also shed some light on workers who had hourly jobs as compared to salaried employees. More than half of respondent households (57%) relied on at least on hourly-paid worker. Most workers in both groups continued to work on-site, but salaried workers were more likely to report working remotely.

Among households where at least one person was working, 29% stated household members in hourly jobs were working fewer hours during the pandemic. A majority of those, 71%, said their employer had less business and needed fewer staff; another 31% said they were working fewer hours to care for children, seniors or a person with a disability.

Of respondents with children, more than half said they were concerned about juggling work and children’s needs and helping with distanced learning. Respondents with children below the ALICE Threshold were more likely to say they were concerned about health risks for children or other household members, 38% vs. 28%, internet and device access issues, 30% vs. 22%, and the cost of care, 25% vs. 14%.

In a separate question, 47% of respondents with children said childcare issues impacted household members’ ability to work during the pandemic. Respondents with children below the ALICE Threshold were more likely to say that a household member was working reduced hours, 24% to 17%, or had quit a job, 10% vs. 2%, due to child care issues since the beginning of the pandemic.

In responses to almost all the questions, the analysis showed that people living in rural areas were struggling more than people in urban areas.

“We knew that people who were living below the ALICE Threshold were already struggling financially, and then when COVID hit, it really has hit ALICE the hardest,” Toni-Holsinger said.

In addition to analyzing the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Data, Toni-Holsinger said some additional data will be collected from survey participants who volunteered to be contacted about their responses, which will help “round out the story and in the end helps us to serve the ALICE population more effectively.”

Something the survey does not measure is stress on individuals and families.

“One of the things I have talked about from the beginning of introducing the ALICE Report to the community is to not underestimate the impact of chronic stress on people,” Toni-Holsinger said. “Now we have a lot of trauma, community trauma and personal trauma, around them that really adds to that. The service providers we work with are so aware of that and I think it has been difficult to keep up with and to try to help people manage and mitigate it. Stress is one of those things that can be hard to see but I think it does snowball and impact the way that people are able to live.”

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