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United Way study finds working families struggling to get by

as printed in the Miami Herald

Almost half the residents of Florida, including much of the state’s glitzy southern half, are barely getting by, living below the federal poverty level or struggling to pay for food, housing, childcare and other basic needs, according to a United Way study released Tuesday.

Dubbed the ALICE report, the study looks closely at the working poor — those people squeezed between the nation’s poorest and its middle class, often overlooked and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Statewide, about 2.1 million households fall into the category, the report found. In Miami-Dade County, the rate is even higher: 21 percent of households live below the federal poverty level and an additional 29 percent can’t afford a “survival budget.”

In Broward and Monroe counties, the numbers are almost as bleak, with 47 and 48 percent living below the poverty level or scrambling to cover basic needs, according to the report.

“This is struggling day to day just to be able to have an education, access to healthcare, transportation and childcare,” said Maria C. Alonso, a United Way Miami-Dade board member and co-chair of the group’s Community Impact Committee. “It is an eye-opener.”

To come up with a formula to define the working poor, researchers from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark calculated the actual cost of living in disparate communities in Florida and five other states. They then devised a “survival budget,” or the amount needed to cover basics, and layered them with statistics on housing costs, wages and other indicators to reach their findings.

The study is the second effort by the Rutgers team to look at poverty. In 2009, the United Way conducted a pilot project in New Jersey and found it so effective at communicating poverty needs that it expanded the study to five other states, including Florida.

But defining poverty can be tricky. Economists have long wrestled with how to better measure the financial struggles of the nation’s poor. Since the federal government developed official Federal Poverty Level guidelines in 1965, it has updated the methods for calculating measures only once — in 1974 — leading some agencies to multiply the federal poverty rate or come up with other factors.

“Poverty is both an absolute and a relative measure,” explained University of Miami economist Philip K. Robins.

Measures can vary greatly, he explained. High housing costs in South Florida and the Keys could mean trouble for a middle-class Jacksonville family. Regional efforts also have to be factored in: What kind of tax breaks are available? Is there enough free preschool? Did the state expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act?

Robins said he suspected the numbers are too high and might not factor in all government subsidies.

“What you mean by ‘getting by’ varies from person to person,” he said. “To say half the households are struggling to afford basic necessities, I’m not sure that jibes with reality.”

In Monroe County, housing costs and a shortage of affordable childcare have created a perfect storm, said Margie Smith, president of the United Way of the Florida Keys. The county has a lower poverty rate than most — just 12 percent. But the number of households struggling to make ends meet under the study’s parameters is higher, 36 percent.

“It’s easy to live here and be in a beautiful place and have no idea what your neighbors are struggling with,” Smith said. The report provides a way for the larger community to look at “the struggles of our neighbors and how much of our economy has become fragile.”

For their survival budgets, Rutgers researchers determined that a family of four in Florida would need $47,484 a year and a single adult would need $18,624 — or about twice the federal poverty rate. The survival budget varies depending on location: For a family of four in the Keys, it is $61,962. Survival budgets include costs for housing, childcare, food, healthcare and transportation. Researchers then added up the number of households they considered ALICE families, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

They attribute the swelling ranks of the poor to a variety of reasons.

More than half of the jobs in Florida pay less than $15 an hour, with the greatest growth in the job market projected for low-paying retail and service industry jobs. Almost half of households — 48 percent — don’t have enough savings or liquid assets to survive three months without a paycheck. And the state’s aging population means even more residents are likely to slip into poverty.

The state’s demographics don’t offer much hope: Only 27 percent of residents older than 25 hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

In 2011, Alicia Smith, 33, found herself teetering on the edge. She was deep in debt, jobless and trying to raise three daughters. Then one day she saw a flier for a United Way program near her house, dropped by and signed up for financial counseling.

Within a year, Smith had her credit under control. A United Way counselor also helped her pull together her résumé, which led to a job as a mall security guard. Now she plans to complete the degree in criminal justice she started before her money troubles set in, and is applying for loans to buy a house.

“I don’t have to worry about collection calls. I have good credit. I got a job. I’m independent,” she said. “I don’t have to look back on anybody to help me. My girls are doing well in school, and my life is normal. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than before.”

Smith’s household is exactly the kind that the ALICE report hopes to highlight, United Way officials said. The agency plans to use the study’s findings to inform programs and tailor lobbying efforts during the spring legislative session in Tallahassee. The state’s 32 United Way chapters have agreed to focus on three areas that directly affect working poor households: access to early education; financial education and free tax preparation; and affordable healthcare coverage, said spokeswoman Yanet Obarrio Sanchez.

“We often focus on families in poverty and what their needs are and what the social safety net looks like,” said Brittany Birken, CEO of the Florida Children’s Council. “But this gives us good information, that there is another tier that warrants attention as well. ... These are families that are economically self-sufficient, who are working hard and making ends meet, but they’re pretty close to the edge and living paycheck-to-paycheck.”