Com­mis­sion­ers re­view ALICE re­port

Ste­wart says county needs to in­ves­ti­gate more

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­

The ALICE re­port is a na­tion­wide study con­ducted by United Way demon­strat­ing how many peo­ple around the state of Mary­land are liv­ing just above the edge of the poverty line and how close they are to fall­ing be­low it.

On Tues­day dur­ing the Charles County Board of Com­mis­sioner’s meet­ing, United Way of Charles County came to share the re­sults of the com­pleted study to the com­mis­sion­ers and ex­plain how Charles County shapes up in com­par­i­son to the rest of the countr y.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, 25 per­cent of Charles County res­i­dents meet ALICE stan­dards, mean­ing they are liv­ing just above the poverty line.

ALICE is an acro­nym, United Way Di­rec­tor Mike Bel­lis said, mean­ing “As­set Lim­ited, Income Con­strained, Em­ployed.” In Charles County, many peo­ple meet that stan­dard, he said, be­cause of the lack of high pay­ing jobs and af­ford­able hous­ing in the county.

“On the statewide level, what we’ve learned is that

35 per­cent of peo­ple are ALICE. That’s a scary num­ber,” Bel­lis said. “In Charles County, com­pared to the coun­ties that are close to the district, we are in some of the worst con­di­tions in terms of ALICE.”

Peo­ple who are con­sid­ered ALICE are work­ing, Bel­lis said. They make too much money to draw any sort of gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance, he said, but they are “try­ing re­ally hard” to make ends meet.

“One toothache or one bro­ken trans­mis­sion will push them into poverty,” Bel­lis said. “For a fam­ily of four, if they’re mak­ing less than $74,688 they are work­ing poor. A fam­ily mak­ing al­most $100,000 a year is strug­gling.”

In the re­port, Bel­lis said, coun­ties were ranked by hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity, job op­por­tu­nity and com­mu­nity resources. Charles County had a 31 score in the hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity cat­e­gory, which is six points lower than the next best county and last in the re­port.

There are nearly 39,000 peo­ple who are con­sid­ered work­ing poor in the county, Bel­lis said. And an­other 11,000 are liv­ing in poverty, he said. “That’s a third of the county,” he said.

County Com­mis­sioner Ken Robin­son (D) asked about the con­trast be­tween the statis­tics in the ALICE re­port and the county’s “in­cred­i­ble growth” eco­nom­i­cally over the past two decades.

Com­pared to other ju­ris­dic­tions closer to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., he said, Charles County’s hous­ing prices are af­ford­able.

Bel­lis said Charles County is about $13,000 over the me­dian house­hold income, but that num­ber does not rep­re­sent most of the res­i­dents in the county. And the over­all price of hous­ing in Charles County has in­creased be­cause of a lack of multi-fam­ily hous­ing units, he said.

But Robin­son said that over 60 per­cent of of Charles County res­i­dents are leav­ing the county ev­ery day for work.

“The reason be­ing is that high pay­ing jobs are out­side of the county,” Robin­son said. “So I’m try­ing to wrap my­self around these num­bers.”

Bel­lis said those statis­tics are true. How­ever, he said, there is a re­main­ing 40 per­cent of peo­ple who are fight­ing over hous­ing in the county that is af­ford­able with lower pay­ing jobs.

That is where the beat of the prob­lem is com­ing from, he said. And there are also high transportation costs af­fil­i­ated with travel.

But Robin­son said as peo­ple drift fur­ther away from D.C., the prices of homes are go­ing to con­tinue to drop. Hous­ing in St. Mary’s County is cheaper for that reason, he said, but they are also less con­ve­nient.

“I think that any­one who is strug­gling is one too many but I’m just con­fused by these statis­tics be­ing thrown out here,” Robin­son said.

Bel­lis said much of the data seen be­fore has not ac­counted for dif­fer­ent costs cit­i­zens have to shoul­der like child care, health care and other things. They typ­i­cally take a look at raw data, he said, and present stud­ies that way.

County Com­mis­sion­ers’ Vice Pres­i­dent Amanda Ste­wart (D) said the eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity dash­board in the study in­di­cates that the county mea­sures well in com­mu­nity resources and job op­por­tu­ni­ties while also strug­gling in terms of hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity.

Ste­wart also pointed out that the county mea­sures out well against other coun­ties in the state in terms of its ALICE thresh­old at 32 per­cent. Only six coun­ties rank ahead of them with 31 per­cent or less.

The com­mis­sion­ers want to make sure that there are af­ford­able hous­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for ev­ery­one, Ste­wart said. How­ever, be­fore start­ing any aid pro­grams, she said, the county needs to fig­ure out why peo­ple cannot af­ford hous­ing when there are op­por­tu­ni­ties and com­mu­nity resources avail­able to them.

“I’m con­cerned that we fo­cus on the neg­a­tive part of the re­port, and we’re not look­ing at the pos­i­tive portions in this county,” she said.

As peo­ple go through the re­port, Ste­wart said, there also needs to be a con­ver­sa­tion about fam­i­lies who are tak­ing on debt they cannot af­ford. There could be a sce­nario where two fam­i­lies that are the same size live in dif­fer­ent priced homes with dif­fer­ent priced ve­hi­cles.

“A lot of times its about choices we make as cit­i­zens. Where we live, how we spend our money, if its im­por­tant to save,” Ste­wart said. “That may be a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion to have with peo­ple be­cause they don’t want to hear ‘You’re liv­ing be­yond your means.’ But I think a lot of this in­for­ma­tion re­ally talks about liv­ing be­yond your means.”

The data in the ALICE re­port is an “in­con­ve­nient truth,” Bel­lis said, but it is the re­al­ity the county is fac­ing.

County Com­mis­sioner De­bra Davis (D) said she would like for the com­mis­sion­ers to help cit­i­zens in need. She was at the ini­tial re­lease of the re­port last week, she said, and felt that some­thing needed to be done.

“I think that there’s a lot we can do and I think this is a good time,” Davis said. “We see this as we dis­cuss our budget. We need to make this a pri­or­ity.”

Davis said she is not go­ing to “ar­gue with the data” as it is pre­sented. News of this data needs to be spread, she said, and peo­ple have to be helped.

Bel­lis said as more peo­ple are in­tro­duced to the data, United Way can have more con­ver­sa­tions about what the next steps in solv­ing the problems the data present.

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