A de­crease in poverty level can hurt strug­gling fam­i­lies

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION - By Jeff Hay­ward

When I read a head­line about the “good news” of slight de­creases in poverty lev­els, I might be the only one in a crowd to feel dis­cour­aged — not en­cour­aged. While we are grate­ful to see any small im­prove­ment, the pic­ture of what it means to be a strug­gling fam­ily in Cen­tral Florida is not ac­cu­rately painted when us­ing the Fed­eral Poverty Level (FPL) to mea­sure it. From more than 20 years in the field with United Way, I have learned that a de­crease in poverty lev­els can trans­late to a dev­as­tat­ing re­al­ity for many fam­i­lies.

One of the most fre­quently used tools to mea­sure need in our coun­try is the Fed­eral Poverty Level. How­ever, in re­al­ity, there is a large per­cent­age of our pop­u­la­tion who is liv­ing above poverty but is far from be­ing fi­nan­cially sta­ble.

These are hard­work­ing fam­i­lies who are known as ALICE — As­set Limited, In­come Con­strained and Em­ployed. ALICE is em­ployed, some­times work­ing mul­ti­ple jobs to make ends meet, but does not earn enough to save for an emer­gency, putting them one un­ex­pected bill away from fi­nan­cial ruin.

In Cen­tral Florida, ap­prox­i­mately 14% of the pop­u­la­tion lives be­low the Fed­eral Poverty Level. On top of that, an ad­di­tional 33% of the pop­u­la­tion are ALICE, strug­gling fi­nan­cially. By only eval­u­at­ing need based on those “in poverty” negates the chal­lenges that one out of three Cen­tral Florida res­i­dents face.

De­spite the FPL’s ben­e­fit of pro­vid­ing a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized in­come thresh­old for de­ter­min­ing those el­i­gi­ble for cer­tain health pro­grams and fed­eral as­sis­tance, its short­com­ings are well-doc­u­mented. It is not based on the cur­rent cost of ba­sic house­hold ne­ces­si­ties and, ex­cept for Alaska and Hawaii, it is not ad­justed to re­flect the cost of liv­ing dif­fer­ences across the U.S.

The United Way ALICE Re­port, how­ever, ex­am­ines the min­i­mum cost of liv­ing, or a sur­vival bud­get, based on hous­ing, child­care, food, trans­porta­tion, health care, and nec­es­sary tech­nol­ogy needs at the county level to more ac­cu­rately iden­tify what it costs to sur­vive.

In ad­di­tion to the FPL not be­ing an ac­cu­rate mea­sure of need, a real-life im­pact of ris­ing above the poverty level may in­clude no longer qual­i­fy­ing for needed sup­port pro­grams. Imag­ine your fam­ily of four sud­denly goes from mak­ing $23,000 an­nu­ally to $25,000. Rea­son to cel­e­brate, right? Wrong. Your fam­ily no longer qual­i­fies for some pub­lic as­sis­tance pro­grams, thus ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing your house­hold ex­penses. This phe­nom­e­non, known as the “fis­cal cliff,” demon­strates the mo­men­tous leap it takes to break out of poverty.

Al­though de­creas­ing poverty lev­els in our com­mu­nity are not some­thing to over­look, it’s im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge the re­al­ity of what nearly 350,000 house­holds are now fac­ing in Cen­tral Florida. They are not nec­es­sar­ily “in poverty,” but they are still strug­gling, fever­ishly tread­ing fi­nan­cial wa­ter, try­ing to stay afloat. They are ALICE.

The re­al­ity be­hind statis­tics is usu­ally not as sim­ple as a head­line can make it seem. Con­sider the real-life im­pli­ca­tions of how we might im­prove con­di­tions for those in poverty, as well as the strug­gling ALICE pop­u­la­tion.

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