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    Friday, December 01, 2023

    More than a 1/3 of New London County residents in economic survival mode ― and their situation is getting more dire

    The pandemic years were an unusually fraught time for the distressing number of New London County households ― more than one-third ― struggling to close the widening gap between their earnings and day-to-day living costs.

    And it’s gotten worse, according to a recently released report that took a deep dive into poverty levels in the state, along with the associated gender, race and age disparities expected to grow after federal safety net funding designed to aid families during the COVID-19 pandemic ended.

    Data published in the 2023 asset limited, income constrained, employed, or ALICE, “Covid and Financial Hardship in Connecticut” report found 9% of all New London County households in 2021 were impoverished.

    Federal guidelines consider an individual with an annual income at or below $12,889 or a family of four with yearly income at or below $26,500 to be living in poverty, a category 10% of Connecticut residents lived, worked and struggled through in 2021.

    The report found a family of four living in Connecticut needed to earn $91,428 a year just to meet bare-minimum costs, while single adult needed to make $33,120 annually. Authors said the cost difference between the federal and state numbers were driven partly by Connecticut’s high food and housing costs.

    Another 29% of New London County households were designated as members of the ALICE category, or just above the federal poverty line, but ― at least on paper ― making too much to be eligible for the state and federal benefits designed to blunt the cost of housing, food and health care expenses.

    In New London, 56% of the city’s 11,138 households were living below the ALICE level, with half of Norwich’s 16,923 families in that same category of struggling to afford basic needs. About 37% of those cities’ households didn’t meet the clinical definition of living in poverty, but still lived in a constant “survival-budget” mode.

    Salem’s below-ALICE percentage ― the lowest in New London County at 19% ― still translated to one in five households making grim calculations every day on how to pay for rent, food and health care.

    “While the (federal poverty level) as the primary way for policymakers and local stakeholders to gauge the extent of financial hardship in their communities, a huge portion of struggling U.S. households go unrecognized,” the report states.

    The report’s findings were “shocking to see” when laid out, but not surprising, said Dina Sears-Graves, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.

    “Racial and gender disparities still persist, as does inflation in general,” she said. “That pandemic assistance that helped is now gone away and our projections are worse for the years of 2021 through 2023.”

    The report, compiled through a partnership between Connecticut United Way chapters and the United For ALICE group, examined census, public sampling and other household income sources from 2019-2021.

    Race, gender and age factor into struggles

    Sears-Graves said more sophisticated data collection techniques allowed report authors to glean new details on how the age and gender makeup of households affected their families’ income levels.

    The most financially distressed group of families in the region, 82%, were headed by a single female compared to 31% of struggling households consisting of a single male raising children.

    “That gap can partially be explained by the types of jobs single mothers are working and the pay disparity compared to what their male counterparts earn,” Sears-Graves said. “Then there’s the challenge of paying for child care, since many of these mothers are working and can’t be home.”

    Age and race also play a role in determining a person’s rung on the socioeconomic ladder, with 59% of families below the ALICE bracket headed by individuals under the age of 25.

    “Black, Hispanic and Native Americans were on the high end of the number of individuals below the ALICE threshold, with Asians at the low end,” said Scott Umbel, United Way’s vice president of community impact. “That’s why it’s so important to take into consideration the income levels of different groups when it comes to providing access to services.”

    Sears-Graves noted the majority of the state’s working poor hold steady jobs and in many cases worked multiple jobs to make ends meet.

    Living on survival budgets as pandemic aid ends

    Umbel said everything ties back to a family’s “survival budget,” that monthly financial reckoning balancing earnings and bills. In 2021, the average New London County budget for two adults with two children in day care amounted to $96,852, a tough financial peak to surmount when 60% of Connecticut workers made less than $40,000 that year.

    “That leaves no extra money, just the bare minimum,” Sears-Graves said. “And the situation has gotten worse since 2021, as have our projections on the years ahead.”

    She said cost and earnings figures from two years ago don’t take into account an 18.2% inflation jump or the expiration of several stop-gap benefit programs introduced during the pandemic, including the Child Tax Credit and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit offerings, that contributed $15,000 to a two-working parent household with a pair of young children.

    “Resources aren’t keeping up with costs; a lot of those dollars that came in during the pandemic to fund the work of nonprofits have also dropped off and they’re struggling to provide services,” Sears-Graves said.

    Beginning in January 2021, federal pandemic relief funding provided an average of $4,345 to low-income families for rent and utility assistance at a time when evictions were halted.

    That package was supplemented months later with economic income payments of $1,400 to eligible recipients and monthly child tax credits benefits of $300 per child.

    Solutions through community engagement

    The situation, while alarming, isn’t irreversible, Umbel said.

    “We are working on solutions to fill some of those needs' gaps, but it’s not something that can be handled by just one organization,” he said. “The more groups out there helping helps to lighten the load.”

    For years, United Way partner Liberty Bank has helped struggling residents create individual development savings accounts that, through a matching plan, enable clients to save for vehicles and homes. Such an endeavor is critical as only 41% of struggling Connecticut households boasted an emergency savings account in 2021, the ALICE report found.

    United Way also works with the Thames Valley Council for Community Action and Habitat for Humanity groups, as well as several corporate, school and municipal partners, to deliver housing, food and other services.

    One big challenge is connecting residents with those programs, as well as to state social service offerings such as fuel assistance and educational support. Narrowing the gap between need and aid is an issue the ALICE report can help bridge, Sears-Graves said.

    “We need to know who needs help when we’re crafting these programs,” she said. “And we also take that information to legislators to let them know the need. Education is one piece of this puzzle, as is improving access and removing barriers.”

    Jeanne Milstein, New London’s director of human services, said the report’s conclusions align with her department’s experience with struggling residents, a “vast majority” of whom are unaware that help is out there.

    “That could be seniors without internet access or residents without transportation, the kinds of people that need help with utilities, rent or putting food on the table,” she said. “So, we’ve had to become creative with our outreach efforts, putting up flyers and posting on social media.”

    It also means forging relationships with those organizations – schools, churches, and health care workers – who interact with families frequently.

    “The library, for instance, is considered a ‘safe haven,’ a place people who might need services go,” Milstein said. “We also learn from the fire department’s ambulance crews about people who need wraparound services.”


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