04 Jul

For the truth about being squeezed in America, go ask ALICE

According the U.S. government, if you’re in a family of four earning more than $25,100 a year, you’re not living in poverty.

But according to just about anyone else, if that’s your income and you’re not poor, you’re not living in the United States.

And certainly not in Portland.

Explaining things that everybody knows but the government doesn’t understand might seem a bottomless mission, but the national United Way has taken a crack at a piece of it. In a project with the appropriately Through-the-Looking-Glass name Alice, it calculates the income actually needed for a stable – and sufficiently fed – life in 16 participating states, including Oregon. The name actually stands for “Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” a description of the squeezed working families that are above the government’s concern but below any level of financial security.

As the report says, “ALICE is your child care worker, your parent on Social Security, the cashier at your supermarket, the gas attendant, the salesperson at your big box store, your waitress, a home health aide, an office clerk. ALICE cannot always pay the bills, has little or nothing in savings, and is forced to make tough choices such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent. One unexpected car repair or medical bill can push these financially strapped families over the edge.”
Looking at life from their perspective – looking at it not from the bottom, but from knowing that you could at any moment suddenly end up there – the numbers of survival look very different from the federal poverty figures.
In Multnomah County, ALICE calculates that a family of two adults, a preschooler and an infant would need $73,032 to cover its expenses, with the biggest costs including housing, food, transportation, health care, child care and taxes. The feds figure that 13 percent of the population of Oregon’s largest county lives in poverty; ALICE sees the number as closer to 38 percent.

ALICE’s income figure is not, points out Alejandro Queral, director of community impact for the United Way of Columbia-Willamette, an extravagant number; an Oregon self-sufficiency standard estimated by the University of Washington runs to $84,000. ALICE, says Queral, provides “a measure of poverty more realistic than the federal standard.”

These calculation won’t change the feds’ numbers, but they explain some things – such as why Oregon food pantries report heavy visits from working families, whom the government may not consider poor but whose cupboards offer a different interpretation. It explains why the state of Oregon will provide food stamps to families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty levels, and why Oregon tries to help low-income working families with its Earned Income Tax Credit, aimed particularly at low-income families with children. Looking at the ALICE numbers, Queral sees the state EITC as a vital tool with more possibilities.
But the realities of the numbers, and of families’ lives, are a long ways away from Washington, D.C., where in June the House of Representatives narrowly passed a farm bill that would tighten food stamp eligibility and impose work requirements on many applicants – limits that Republican supporters praised as providing a path out of poverty. This thinking is based on the belief that food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), is full of healthy adults refusing to work, instead living large on their average $120-a-month in food support. Yet most people getting SNAP help are children, elderly or disabled. Most of those capable of work are working, but – as the ALICE report makes clear – not earning enough to feed their families.

“I worked at Legal Aid,” recalls Portland Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, who estimates that the bill could knock as many as 65,000 Oregonians off food stamps. “You pretty quickly learn that people are not sitting at home by choice.”

Actually, not too many people capable of working are sitting at home at all – and as the ALICE report shows, you don’t have to be sitting at home to be badly squeezed, and very possibly hungry.

The House has just passed a farm bill likely to make that worse. But a farm bill that preserves the mission of food stamps has been passed by the Senate, 86-11. Supporters are counting on the Senate to hold up the food safety net when the bills go to conference.

“Oregon is one of the hungriest states in the country. We have to do everything we can to ensure children and disabled Oregonians and Americans don’t go hungry,” says the state’s junior senator, Jeff Merkley. “As we work to reconcile our farm bill with the House bill—which imposes detrimental work requirements on SNAP recipients—I will push my colleagues to support our most vulnerable community members, and make sure millions of Americans don’t go hungry.”

There are more American families in a financial squeeze than we know, or like to think about; go ask ALICE. There are things we could do to help, or at least we could try to keep from making things worse.

Congress, and the rest of us, could listen to what we’re hearing from ALICE.

Or we could just head deeper down the rabbit hole.

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website.