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Thousands of CT children go without enough to eat, report shows

About 125,000 Connecticut kids didn’t have enough to eat in the fall of 2021, according to a new statewide report on the financial hardships faced by families with children.

The report, conducted through a partnership between Connecticut United Way and United for ALICE, examines a group of people referred to as ALICE — the acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

The people designated to be in this group earn enough to put them above the federal poverty level but not enough to make ends meet. ALICE is often comprised of people who work lower-paying hourly jobs, such as cashiers, for example.

Nearly 305,000 of Connecticut’s children were in households at or below the ALICE threshold, according to 2019 data used in this year’s report.

A 2020 report on ALICE households in Connecticut showed the number of households on the threshold of being in this group was growing, and “even a small increase in the cost of housing or a decrease in work hours can mean the difference between being financially stable and being ALICE.” That report was based on 2018 data.

“I think it’s uncomfortable,” said Lisa Tepper Bates, president and chief executive officer for United Way of Connecticut. “I think it’s important to take a minute to think about that, and perhaps to think about how it makes us feel. … This is about our children, this is about the future of our state.”

Black and Hispanic children lived in households with financial hardship at disproportionate rates compared to their white counterparts, the study shows. While 26% of all white children in Connecticut lived in homes that were below the ALICE threshold, 72% of Black children and 67% of Hispanic children were below the ALICE threshold.

The study largely looks at data from 2019, although portions address more recent information. Financial instability has gotten worse for many families since the pandemic began and inflation levels spiked, experts said.

The ALICE threshold takes more factors into account than the federal poverty level, such as cost of housing, child care, food, transportation and taxes, Tepper Bates said.

The federal poverty level for a family of four was $25,750, but the ALICE bare minimum cost for a family to live in Connecticut that year was just over $90,000, according to the report.

This means that many who need help don’t qualify for assistance. About 13% of Connecticut’s children lived in households that earned less than the poverty level in 2019, but about 42% fell below the ALICE threshold, according to the report.

“A huge, huge percentage aren’t receiving services because they’re above the poverty level,” said Ashley Gaudiano, vice president of resource development and marketing at the United Way of Western Connecticut.

Natasha McLain, a Connecticut parent, spoke at a press conference Monday announcing the ALICE report. She said she earns too much to qualify for assistance, but her family shops at Goodwill and she’s struggled to work enough to keep up with bills while being present with her children.

“I don’t think my story is unique, but I don’t think it’s heard enough,” she said.

As inflation has risen, McLain has needed to work more to make up the difference. So she decided to sell her home so she could have the money, cut back on work and spend more time with her kids.

“All my kids can say is that mama is a hard worker,” she said. “I wasn’t there.”

There are more people seeking help for the first time than in years past, experts said.

Dina Sears-Graves, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, said she’s seen cars of families with children line up waiting for food, many of them who haven’t had to come get help before.

“What we heard over and over again is ‘I’ve never done this before,’” Sears-Graves said Monday.

In addition to food insecurity, ALICE households tend to struggle with education, stable housing, health insurance, home internet and access to public assistance, the report says.

Connecticut’s rate of enrollment in early-childhood programs is well above the national average, but children in ALICE households were less likely to be in the programs, according to the report. About 78% of preschool-aged children above the threshold were enrolled, while only 57% below the threshold were enrolled.

Housing costs have also risen in recent months as demand has outpaced supply in both the rental and real estate markets. Sixty-five percent of tenants below the ALICE threshold were rent-burdened in 2019, which means they paid more than 35% of their incomes to rent, according to the report.

Experts have said Connecticut’s lack of available housing for low income people is tied to restrictive local zoning laws that make it difficult to build multifamily, affordable housing.

“The bottom line is people are paying hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands of dollars more for rent than they were two years ago,” said Kiley Gosselin, executive director at the Partnership for Strong Communities.

These increases are coming at a time when families with low incomes are likely to have exhausted much of their savings making ends meet earlier in the pandemic, Gosselin said.

United Way officials recommended two policy solutions to help ALICE thresholds – keeping the state’s earned income tax credit at 41.5%, and establishing a child tax credit in Connecticut.

Gov. Ned Lamont used the federal pandemic relief this winter to raise the state’s EITC to 41.5% for 2020 and 2021.

Democrats pledged to make tax relief for the state’s working poor a focus this session.

“The enhanced EITC and the child tax credit in Connecticut would greatly benefit families,” Tepper Bates said. “ … These are two really important vehicles simply to put more money in their [families’] pockets so that they can afford these high costs.”

Keith Phaneuf contributed to this story.

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