United Way Raises Awareness Of Families Struggling To Make Ends Meet

United Way Raises Awareness Of Families Struggling To Make Ends Meet

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ALICE, the acronym that stands for asset limited, income constrained, employed, designates people in the community who don’t qualify for federal poverty benefits, but still struggle to make ends meet.
According to Laura Toni-Holsinger, executive director of United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, people who fall into this category, referred to as the ALICE population, are oftentimes one emergency away from a financial crisis, live paycheck to paycheck and are forced to choose between basic needs.
“For United Way, we felt like this was really a population that we could have an impact on,” Toni-Holsinger said. “A significant part of our work with ALICE is part of this continuum of moving people from crisis to survival to sustainability.”
United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, a community chapter of the national organization that coordinates human services for those in need in the community, joined its statewide counterparts this week for ALICE Awareness Week. The campaign consists of daily email programming about those in the community who are barely making ends meet.
The week’s programming began with an overview of ALICE topics on Monday.
United for ALICE, an organization associated with United Way, created a new figure, the ALICE threshold, which includes the minimum cost to meet basic needs for a given household. The organization produces annual reports on these numbers. According to the 2020 Virginia report, 61% of Harrisonburg residents and 36% of Rockingham County residents fall below the ALICE threshold, which includes households that fall below the federal poverty line.
“There are a lot of people that are below the ALICE threshold in our community. When we saw this in the original report in 2017, it not only matched what we thought would be true but it also provided some data to say there is a significant population that is on the brink of crisis if you will,” Toni-Holsinger said.
In Harrisonburg, many community organizations are part of an ALICE coalition, which recognizes the unique struggles of these families.
“Even before the ALICE report, groups that we worked with were already serving ALICE. We just didn’t call it that,” Toni-Holsinger said. “[ALICE Awareness Week is] a great educational opportunity for the larger community to say, people who are accessing these services are not always people without jobs or who are experiencing homelessness. People in this population might be people that you work with, you interact with on a regular basis.”
Second Home, a before and after-school learning center program, serves many families who are in the ALICE population in Harrisonburg City Public Schools by offering child care during busy hours for working parents at a significantly lower cost than other child care.
“The majority of our students are from low-income families that either live at or below poverty level or belong to the ALICE population,” said Krisztina Székely, executive director of Second Home. “We charge very low fees because we want to … actually fulfill our mission to provide affordable and academically focused child care to our children who come from low-income families in Harrisonburg.”
Today, the emailed program focuses on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ALICE population.
Marlena Jarboe is dean of academic affairs at Blue Ridge Community College. Jarboe recently completed a doctoral thesis and dissertation on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on community college students who had children. Jarboe said many if not all of the students she interviewed fell into the ALICE population and shared the unique challenges they face.
“People aren’t aware of all of the challenges, and sometimes all it takes is some kindness and grace,” Jarboe said. “Specifically in the classroom, if a child gets sick and [their] parent can’t turn a paper in on time.”
Jarboe found parents often went without mental health care and faced a lack of affordable child care during the pandemic. Jarboe said the parents she spoke to make strategic decisions, like cohabitating instead of getting married to keep federal benefits coming and have had cases where a small pay increase will prevent them from receiving federal assistance.
“There’s huge motivation and persistence and drive here, that if they could just get a leg up. If they could just pay for their child care. If they could just earn that degree faster,” Jarboe said. “[There’s a] balance between not making too much money and making ends meet.”
Topics for the rest of the week will include factors that prevent ALICE households from setting successful budgets and the benefits of sufficient income across all households for communities and economies at large.
Ways that the community can support the ALICE population will be the focus of the final newsletter, which will include details for this year’s Greatest Needs Drive, presented by the local United Way and will begin after ALICE Awareness Week.
Oftentimes, charities are overwhelmed by donations of items they didn’t really need during the holidays, while items that are most in need are still lacking, Toni-Holsinger said. United Way aims to assist these organizations by determining which items are most in need by charities around the community.
“We noticed there were lots of individuals groups and businesses that were doing collection drives around the holidays to support local organizations, which is great. And we want to try to channel that. We also realize that sometimes people collecting things is really well intentioned, but were things that an organization didn’t actually need or didn’t need more of,” Toni-Holsinger said.
United Way compiles a list of these items and coordinates their collection and distribution to the different charities to ensure that community resources make the most impact where they are needed.