Nunez Community College

Nunez Community College

Here’s startling, unwelcome news: Half of Louisiana households operate under the stress of teetering finances — a minor emergency away from toppling.

It gets grimmer: Numbers that support the above come from 2018, before a pandemic crippled the global economy. Things are likely worse.

The Louisiana Association of United Ways revealed last week the precarious state of our families. One-third of Louisiana’s 1,735,620 households operate in the realm of “working poor”: They hold jobs but cannot earn enough to make ends meet. The gap is substantial and places families in the untenable position of choosing between life’s necessities: Food or medicine?

The information comes from United Way’s annual ALICE report: ALICE stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed.” That’s where the working poor live their daily lives: Their days spent in toil, their incomes too meager to afford birthday parties for kids or an occasional meal out.

Louisiana workers have in recent years enjoyed full or nearly full employment but something less than living wages. So many employees work jobs that, during the pandemic, have been deemed essential but which too often pay substandard wages. It is ironic that one could be essential yet little valued.

“The greatest impact of the report, what it has done, is frame the needs for half of the population,” said George Bell, president and CEO of Capital Area United Way in Baton Rouge. “We understand what that need is, how fragile that population is. We hope it changes how policymakers make decisions.”

Elsa Dimitriadis, of United Way of Acadiana, said basic expenses for ALICE families don’t include debt payments, savings or even such expenses as haircuts, flat tires or unplanned illnesses.

Mike Williamson, president and CEO of United Way of Southeastern Louisiana, added, “Fifty percent of our neighbors can’t afford the basics. Our values suggest we cannot live with that scenario.” He’s right.

Louisiana, though, can find strength in what seems to be dispiriting numbers: 33% of “working poor” households are working, even when people cannot seem to get ahead. Others would work if jobs were available. Our working poor demonstrate a work ethic.

What might reverse their fortunes and Louisiana’s? Workforce training that leads to skilled employment and higher pay. But if a flat tire could derail a family’s finances, what might college tuition do to them?

We must rethink how we aid these neighbors. Louisiana has a dozen community colleges that train people for good jobs with good wages. In South Louisiana, they stretch from SOWELA to Nunez. Not a single available classroom seat should be empty, not when working people might fill them.

The challenge: Getting people there. Supporting them. It’s not impossible. It’s easier than providing for a family with starvation wages.

Report shows 'working poor' households increasing in Louisiana as low-wage jobs grow