United Way report identifies hurdles for the working poor

Housing and child care are two of the biggest hurdles for the working poor, as low-paid employees across southeastern Connecticut struggle to stay financially afloat in a state where 51 percent of the jobs pay less than $20 an hour.

That was one of many points highlighted Friday at the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut’s “Redefining a Hardworking America” program that attracted about 80 people concerned about the financial hardships faced by 26 percent of the population in New London County.

The local United Way hosted the forum at its Gales Ferry offices as a way of introducing and brainstorming on its participation in the recently released ALICE report — a study that identifies and quantifies the 474,445 households in Connecticut that struggle to get by.

In New London County, 8 percent of these families fall under the federal guideline for poverty; another 26 percent earn significantly more but still not enough to cover the minimum costs of housing, child care, food, health care and transportation.

The later group, identified in the United Way report as ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — were the focus of Friday’s forum that included comments by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Commissioner of Labor Sharon Palmer, and John Beauregard, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, as well as others.

Two people from the United Way of Northern New Jersey, where the ALICE project was first launched, spoke about how they have used information from their report to improve child care options for the working poor and to champion other causes.

Connecticut’s 16 United Way chapters partnered on a Connecticut-specific ALICE report and now the chapters and social service providers across the state hope to use the information to identify the population and address ways of alleviating their problems.

“This is a moment of collective impact and a moment of collective promise,” said Virginia Mason, president of the local United Way.

She also called the ALICE population a new definition of “a hardworking America.”

Rick Porth, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Connecticut, said United Way groups in the state are on the front lines of connecting those in need with services and know firsthand how many working families are struggling.

The challenge, if left unattended, he said, is the continual inability for this population to ever get ahead and continue to be a drain on the overall community.

“These people get up every day and go to work, but they are not sure if they can make ends meet,” he said, adding they are people who live in every town and city in the state.

Some are new college graduates who incurred student debt. Others are retirees who lost some of their savings in the economic downturn. They are single mothers and fathers who lost their jobs as businesses have downsized.

Despite Connecticut’s better-than-most minimum wage, Porth said someone providing for a family of four would need to earn about $32 an hour to cover the cost of minimal household expenses. According to ALICE statistics, 25 percent of jobs in Connecticut pay $10 to $15 an hour, and 8 percent pay less than $10 an hour. On the high end, 13 percent of jobs pay hourly wages of $40 or more and 36 percent pay $20 to $40.

That $32-an-hour figure that Port cited is for “basic necessities, no frills” for a family of four, he said.

The United Way chapters will work towards short- and long-term solutions to the problems of the working poor through community engagement and community conversations, Porth said.

Palmer, the state’s labor commissioner, said she grew up in an ALICE household and has fit the criteria at various times in her life.

Now, as the state’s employment situation is improving, is a good time to address the ALICE issue, she said.

But a comment from a member of the audience pointed out that many new jobs being created are low paying and only contributing to the ALICE population.

Blumenthal said the fact that Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, has a significant number of working poor is one reason for the country’s malaise.

“Is it any wonder that people are upset, angry and fearful?” he asked.

John Franklin, the president of the United Way of New Jersey, asked Blumenthal to take the ALICE report back to Washington, D.C., and engage President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner in the discussion in a nonpartisan way. Blumenthal said he would, but made no promises about his success with Boehner.

Participants didn’t come to any clear resolution, except to concur that continuing community discussions about whom ALICE will help to bolster support for things like affordable housing, child care options and job training.

a.baldelli@theday.com

Twitter: @annbaldelli 

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Connecticut ALICE report

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