Commissioners review ALICE report
Stewart says county needs to investigate more
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.