In Connecticut, 40 percent of households struggled to meet basic costs of living in 2016, and most did not have enough savings to handle a fiscal crisis such as a layoff, car repair or illness, a study released Sunday by Connecticut United Ways said.
United Way officials said the federal poverty level doesn’t tell the story about workers struggling to make a living. United Ways in 18 states tackle the issue by measuring the actual costs of expenses in eight categories and calculating which households are ALICE: asset limited, income constrained, employed.
The Connecticut report updated the ALICE calculations made in 2010 for the costs of housing, transportation, food, health care, child care, taxes and the cost of owning a smartphone. Despite the slow economic recovery, the number of ALICE households in Connecticut increased by 10 percent from 2010 to 2016.
United Way officials said there were variations among the state's eight counties, including higher housing costs in Fairfield County, and higher transportation costs in eastern Connecticut, where public transit is less available.
Richard Porth, CEO of United Way Connecticut, said officials want to introduce ALICE to the state's residents, employers and service providers to find ways to address the problems faced by working families.
“We want to shine a light on people and families,” Porth said during a recent telephone press conference. “Traditionally, the federal poverty level has been used sort of as a measure but I think there is a growing realization that it is not an accurate way of measuring financial hardship.”
United Ways support programs that provide free income tax filing assistance to families, provide financial management coaches and even matching grants to families who commit to saving money for housing, education or transportation.
“Each United Way locally is doing something a little bit different to address ALICE,” said Virginia Mason, president and CEO of United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.
The study showed that to meet a "household survival budget" in Connecticut in 2016, a single adult needed an annual income of $24,672, an hourly wage of $12.34. A family of four — two adults, an infant and a preschool child — needed an income of $77,832, or $6,486 per month, an hourly wage of $38.92.
The report stated 30 percent of Connecticut households failed to meet the ALICE threshold of income needed for basic expenses, and another 10 percent met the federal poverty level, meaning 40 percent — a total of 538,529 households — struggled financially in 2016. Households with incomes above poverty but below the ALICE threshold rose by 15 percent from 2010 to 2016.
In New London County, the ALICE threshold income level was $75,192, or $37.60 per hour, for the family of four, and $23,976, or $11.99 per hour, for an individual, slightly lower than the statewide average.
Officials at the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut said many existing programs run by dozens of partner agencies address needs outlined in the report. The Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, which stocks food pantries throughout the region, will mark its 30th anniversary in October.
Dina Sears-Graves, vice president of community impact at the local United Way, said the agency has two programs that provide matching grants to families once they reach a minimum savings level. In a program run by Habitat for Humanity, United Way and Liberty Bank match up to $1,000 each for housing. The second program, run by TVCCA, matches savings for housing, education or transportation.
In Norwich, where 54 percent of households have incomes below the ALICE threshold, United Way soon will launch a program to introduce middle school and high school students to the jobs expected to be available in the region in the future, such as the manufacturing jobs at Electric Boat, Sears-Graves said.
The ALICE report delved into demographic and employment factors, including the state's aging population, increase in immigrant population and an overall drop in population. Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, prefer to live in urban centers and rent rather than own homes. As a result, areas of the state have seen rental housing shortages, driving up costs, the report stated.
Many millennials move in with their parents or with roommates to cut costs.
“Even though the population of millennials is increasing,” the report stated, “the number of households headed by them is decreasing. The youngest segment of the millennials, households headed by under-25-year-olds, fell by 9 percent.”
The state job market improved from 2010 to 2016, with unemployment dropping below 5 percent. Wages rose, with 55 percent of jobs paying better than $20 per hour. But the report said wages failed to keep pace with the increase of costs in the household survival budget.
The report found the types of new jobs created have shifted away from traditional full-time, full benefits to more contract work or on-demand hours, in which workers are called in during busy times and sent home during lulls. These jobs leave workers with unstable incomes, and on their own for health care and to plan for savings and retirement.
The study said 75 percent of workers nationwide lived paycheck to paycheck, without savings or in debt. In 2015 in Connecticut, 48 percent of residents did not have three months' worth of savings to face emergencies such as job loss or medical issues. Households might need to turn to high-interest loans or credit cards to avoid utility shutoffs, pay medical or car bills, the report stated.
“When families do not have savings or access to traditional financial services, they are often forced to use alternative lending products with high interest rates and greater risks of predatory lending practices and default,” the report stated. “Yet in some cases, the consequence of not taking out these loans are worse than the risk of taking them.”