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LISTEN: Working, But Still Struggling To Make Ends Meet

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Connecticut, 38% of the state’s residents were already struggling to make ends meet -- that’s according to a new report by the United Way of Connecticut. The data, from 2018, looks at families living at or near the poverty level and those who live above it but lack the income to pay for housing, food, child care and health care. 

They’re known as ALICE households -- Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.  

Among the findings: In 148 of Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities, at least 1 in 5 households are below the ALICE threshold. The United Way estimates that it now costs more than $90,000 a year for a family of four with one infant and one toddler to pay for basic needs. And a big part of the story is Connecticut’s high cost of living, especially for housing and child care.   

Connecticut Public Radio’s Morning Edition host Diane Orson spoke with Kim Morgan, CEO of United Way of Western Connecticut, and Latesha Burton, a mother in an ALICE household.

What follows are highlights of that conversation:

DO: This report offers an economic snapshot of Connecticut in 2018 and gives us a sense of the kind of landscape that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended economically. What are the key takeaways?

KM: You know, I am struck every time we do this report that the biggest takeaway for me is that the cost of living continues to increase and the wages have not increased at the same pace. We’re a pretty progressive state in that we have the minimum wage law of $15 phased in. But what we see happening is as wages increase a dollar at a time, people tend to end up losing the safety net that they had before, which pushes them into the ALICE threshold.

DO: And we’re talking in this report about families that are living at or below the poverty level, but also we’re talking about families that are above the poverty level who are struggling to make ends meet.

KM: Yeah. I think it’s important -- we can talk about a lot of numbers, but it’s really the people behind those numbers that matter. And ALICE is a group who are working hard -- multiple jobs often -- with schedules that are sporadic at times. I’m sure Latesha could speak to some of that in her household. So there’s instability. The ability to budget on a regular basis is challenging. And they’re working. They’re doing their best to put food on the table and get their kids to school or manage them at home these days. And it’s really been a struggle. But it’s those who are above the poverty line who don’t access things on a regular basis like food stamps, child care, housing support. They’re actually more unstable often than those who might have a lesser income but have some of those safety net programs in place.

DO: Latesha, let’s turn to you for a moment. First of all, were you surprised by the findings in the report at all?

LB: No. I’ve spoken to several of my friends and, you know, being ALICE, sometimes you have to use credit cards to stay afloat. One of my friends said that her property tax, she was going to have to charge it. Another friend said that her car broke down, but she has no means of taking care of that. And what happens is, the slightest thing could throw you off. Like my husband had gotten laid off one time and it was such a shock. We were not prepared financially. I had to put together rolls of pennies and pawn some jewelry just so I could get the rent paid. So now that I’ve learned that lesson, that’s definitely the first thing that comes out in the first few weeks of the month. But as Kim was saying, we make a little too much according to the federal guidelines to receive assistance. But we make too little to actually live on. So my husband is an essential worker. And he has a schedule that’s part time. We don’t know how many days he’s going to get each week. Sometimes he gets two. Sometimes he gets four or five to work. We don’t really know on his part what we’ll be able to budget or how we’ll be able to use the money. So thankfully I work 40 hours a week. I have a great job and my boss is very pro-family. So now that we’re going back into school, I’m going to be looking after the kids and working around that schedule.

DO: And let’s talk for a moment about what the COVID-19 pandemic has overlaid on top of the overall picture for your family.

LB: So, it’s very difficult. My husband works in a supermarket, so he had a lot of anxiety. You know, the utilities increased because we’re home most of the time for social distancing. And then also the food bill increases because we have the kids here. They’re not in school having their lunch. So mental health and emotionally it was so difficult. I found myself crying at times because it was so overwhelming -- working and teaching my kids. I have an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, so you’re dealing with their conflicts.

DO: Kim, based on your report what are some steps forward?

KM: Latesha hit on a key point. And that’s the fact that ALICE doesn’t have assets often. They don’t have that cushion. So it’s that one car repair that leads to them potentially losing work or child care, which then snowballs. It’s a matter of looking at the short-term help so that people can get through the day and the week and the month. And then it’s also looking at that long-term systemic change that needs to happen.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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