February 28, 2017
United Way: Working poor represent 44% of population
By JONATHAN SCHOLLES
STAFF WRITER – Charlotte Sun
Christine Bowers works full time at a middle school, is a college student, an active in the community and a mother of two.
And like millions of the others in Florida, Bowers, 39, lives paycheck to paycheck. The Port Charlotte resident went through a tough divorce in 2012.
“Things went downhill from there,” said Bowers, who has an 11-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter and — until recently — was getting by via payday loans.
“I was a stay-at-home mom with no job and no education,” added Bower, who takes online early education courses at Florida SouthWestern State College. “I’m hoping to one day get my family stable. I’ve slowly been picking up the pieces and putting my life back together.”
United Way illustrates this type of situation in its latest ALICE report, released last week. The assessment details the real-life struggles of the working poor, those who make more than the federal poverty guideline but still battle to put food on the table.
In its findings, ALICE states that 29.5 percent of the state’s working households struggle to pay bills, while 14.5 percent make less than the federal poverty level.
Lumped together, 44 percent of Florida’s 7.5 million households grapple daily with their finances.
Bowers said there is a “definite imbalance” between pay wages and housing. She earns about $15,000 a year and rent represents 50 percent of that.
“It’s very difficult,” said Bowers, who qualified last fall for a Season for Sharing scholarship through United Way, helping her to pay her utility bills and rent to break the payday loan cycle.
Those living in extreme poverty — a segment that includes the homeless — can be easy to spot. But ALICE individuals oftentimes go unnoticed.
“ALICE individuals are working but may be living in a car or in a garage. They smile and their boss thinks everything is fine,” said Angie Matthiessen, director of resource development at United Way in Charlotte County.
Alison Green, manager at Millennium Physician Group in Port Charlotte, had a worker with a cheery attitude. She was well-liked.
“I was impressed that she had so many things come up and yet always showed up for work with a positive attitude,” Green said.
But then Green became aware of the challenges that employee faced at home. The employee, Green said, had three children, including one with spina bifida, had been kicked out of a home and was living in a hotel room. The employee was scared she would lose her children.
Green helped her pay rent and bills and donated some personal belongings. She connected her with United Way for assistance.
“I try to be aware and open with my employees,” Green said. “They know even if it’s a vacation day, they can still call and talk to me.”
‘Backbone of economy’
ALICE workers can be found in nearly every industry from trade and transportation, government and farming.
“They are the backbone of virtually every major economic sector in Florida: agriculture, tourism, service, health care and education,” said Thomas Epsky, board chair of Florida United Way and member of Florida Reemployment Assistance Appeals Commission, during a news conference.
“They make up such a large part of our communities that United Way has dedicated ongoing resources and support to them,” he said.
House Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, sponsored H.B. 2153 a month ago, a bill that, if adopted, would provide $1.2 million in funding to the United Way of Florida. The funds would support the organization and its programs, including the earned income tax credit program, which can help ALICE families recover up to $48 million in wages that often go unclaimed.
“ALICE families have the potential to earn up to $1 billion in EITC credits and $193 million in higher education tax credits each year,” Epsky said.
Most of the time, Santiago said people just need a little help getting back on the track to prosperity, and this bill may do that.
“Many dollars are left on the table and it’s a matter of getting that to the people that need it, helping them to the next step in their lives, and in many cases, reinvigorating the economy when they spend those dollars locally. It’s a cycle of help,” he said.
Julie Mathis, executive director of the Charlotte County Chamber and president of the county’s United Way board, meets with county commissioners every other month. She talks with developers and builds synergies to promote more workforce housing.
“There’s no quick fix, but everyone sees the problem,” she said. “Developers want to make money, but there are private-public partnerships that will pay off in the long run. The more we talk about these issues, the more people realize what’s going on and the more that we can change it.”
Housing, child care, health care and transportation are the largest financial stresses ALICE individuals face. Added up and coupled with low wages — 67 percent of jobs in the state pay less than $20 an hour and three-quarters pay less than $15 — it can be a daunting hole, blurring the lines between situational and generational poverty.
“Everything seems completely unaffordable,” Bowers said.