That Louisiana has a lot of poor people is no secret, but a new report lends some sobering detail to a problem that’s plagued the state for generations.
Meet ALICE, the United Way’s acronym for working families that are very often not making it at a level needed to support children or avoid catastrophic financial crises.
ALICE stands for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. ALICE families are not at the official poverty level, but are unable to make a basic cost of living standard that was developed by experts at the request of United Way agencies in 17 states including Louisiana.
These are families where typically both adults work. But add the costs of an infant and a preschooler, and the study shows that just under $5,000 a month is needed for the basics like housing, health care, transport and food.
That leaves precious little if anything for savings and the capacity to launch young children into a better life.
The United Way report is broken down to the parish level. It’s based on 2016 data and is not strictly comparable with the earlier 2014 report. One change has been that household expenses include some money for technology, since possession of a cellphone has become basic for holding just about any job.
The data also does not encompass a full year of Medicaid expansion, ordered by Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2016 but only going into effect at mid-year. That should provide some benefits for families in the ALICE bracket.
The report nevertheless documents a huge proportion of Louisiana’s workforce in trouble. Low-wage employment becomes a difficult lifestyle for both individuals and those families with children. Two-thirds of jobs in the state pay less than $15 an hour, the UW report says, and that’s not enough for many families, even in wealthier parishes.
In both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a majority are either ALICE or poverty-level. But the “issues are just as significant for the Northshore as for Orleans,” said Roger Ogden, a businessman and leader in the United Way of Southeast Louisiana.
Parts of Louisiana are worse, of course. The Mississippi Delta extends south to the Baton Rouge area to parishes like St. Helena, where 57 percent are either ALICE or at poverty level. In Acadiana, Lafayette Parish is relatively good at 44 percent in both categories, but more rural parishes like St. Landry clock in at 57 percent.
Events can quickly change circumstances for families. The 2016 data showed ALICE families rising to 28 percent from an earlier 22 percent in the Baton Rouge area after the catastrophic 2016 flood, according to the Capital Area United Way.
We hope these findings inform the debates ahead among candidates for governor and the Legislature this year. Government alone can’t be the solution for the struggles that ALICE families face, but it can be a key player in improving the lives of the many Louisiana residents who are barely making it. Now is the time for wide public discussion about what can be done to help the working poor get a little farther up the ladder.
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