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Report: More in state struggling financially

Connecticut is an expensive state to live in.

In fact, the cost of basic household expenses here is more than most jobs can support, according to a report released today by the Connecticut United Ways that provides a detailed snapshot of financial hardship above and beyond the outdated and woefully inadequate federal poverty guidelines.

Thirty-five percent of Connecticut's working households grapple to afford the basics of housing, child care, food, health care and transportation, according to the ALICE report - an abbreviation for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed - which was developed by the state's 16 United Way chapters in collaboration with Rutgers University. It is intended to be used as a tool for policymakers and stakeholders to better understand and address the financial hardships faced by the working poor.

The 121-page report examines the struggles that laborers, retail salespeople, customer service representatives, personal care aides and other low-paid, service-sector workers regularly experience in trying to stay financially afloat. And it introduces a new measurement tool - the ALICE Threshold - that calculates income inadequacy by computing the current cost of basic necessities and geographic variations.

The findings portray a significant portion of the state's population struggling to make ends meet.

Despite Connecticut's above-average minimum wage - it is scheduled to increase to $9.15 on Jan. 1, 2015, and to $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2017 - the cost of living here is beyond what many jobs pay, forcing individuals and families to make difficult budgeting choices.

While Connecticut's median household income is $67,276 - 24 percent higher than the U.S. median of $51,371 - that median masks the fact that 35 percent of households are financially in peril or fragile. In addition to the 10 percent already classified by federal guidelines as living in poverty, another 25 percent live below the ALICE Threshold, an indicator that they, too, are scraping to get by.

According to the report, 51 percent of jobs in Connecticut pay less than $20 per hour, pushing many households below the ALICE Threshold.

The problem is exacerbated because the growth of low-skilled jobs is expected to outpace that of medium- and high-skilled jobs in the state and across the country over the next decade, the report states. At the same time, the cost of basic household necessities will rise.

In New London County, 34 percent of households are classified as below theALICE Threshold, meaning they struggle every month to pay for necessities. The percentage is even higher in the city of New London, where 57 percent of the 10,293 households fall below the threshold.

According to the report, the annual Household Survival Budget for the average Connecticut family of four is $64,689; for a single adult it is $21,944. But the state's annual Household Stability Budget, one that enables not only survival, but self-sufficiency, is almost double the survival budget - $111,632 for a family of four and $30,118 for a single adult.

"These numbers highlight how inadequate the U.S. poverty rate is as a measure of economic viability, at $23,050 for a family and $11,170 for a single adult," reads the report.

Connecticut reports its official poverty rate as 10 percent, or 141,628 of the state's 1.36 million households.

The 35 percent of struggling households in the state include the 141,628 that live in poverty and 332,817 that qualify as ALICE households. The ALICE threshold is the average level of income that a household needs to afford the basics, defined by the Household Survival Budget for each county in the state.

All told, the report concludes that Connecticut has an unfilled gap of $2.6 billion between the ALICE Threshold and all sources of income - whether earned or government and nonprofit assistance. The total annual income of poverty-level and ALICE households in the state is $9.3 billion, including wages and Social Security. That is 41 percent of the amount needed to reach the ALICE Threshold of $22.5 billion statewide, with government and nonprofit assistance comprising an additional 47 percent, according to the report.

In New London County, comprised of 21 towns, the highest percentage of poverty and ALICE households are in New London (57 percent), Norwich (50 percent), Groton (38 percent), Griswold (37 percent) and Sprague (36 percent.)

Ledyard ranks lowest, at 15 percent, with other towns, including Salem, Voluntown, Old Lyme and Colchester, in the low 20th percentile. Across the county, 65 percent, or 69,120 households live abovethe ALICE threshold. But still, every corner of the state is touched.

"ALICE lives in every city and town in the state, and they are people we know," said Richard J. Porth, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Connecticut.

In four of Connecticut's six largest cities -New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury -more than 50 percent of households have income below ALICE, and every county in the state has more than 25 percent of households living below ALICE.

Porth said the report, modeled after a similar 2009 project in Morris County, N.J., creates both a more accurate definition of what financial hardship is and what it really costs to make ends meet in Connecticut.

Every age group is affected, with households headed by someone in their prime earning years -25 to 64 -comprising the largest segment.

And while ALICE households represent a cross-section of the state's population, female-headed households, blacks, Hispanics, the disabled and unskilled recent immigrants are over-represented in the struggling population.

The consequences of so many people pressured to spread their inadequate paychecks results in long-term consequences for the poor and working poor and for the communities that they live in.

According to the report, when a family cannot afford child care in an accredited or licensed facility, and they substitute with a neighbor or relative, they limit their child's access to learning and school-readiness opportunities.

"Other short-term strategies, such as skipping preventative health care, home maintenance or a bill payment, may have long-term consequences such as poor health, fines and larger bills in the future," said the report.

"These 'savings' threaten their health, safety and future - and they reduce Connecticut's economic productivity and raise insurance premiums and taxes for everyone," the report continues. "The costs are high for both ALICE households and the wider community."

Authors and supporters of the report envision it as a "new set of tools" to understand and work toward solving the problems of the working poor.

"Quantifying the problem can help stakeholders best decide whether to fill the gap through efforts to increase income for ALICE households or decrease expenses for basic household necessities," concludes the report.

"Improving Connecticut's economy and meeting ALICE's challenges are linked," it states. "Improvement for one would directly benefit the other. Ultimately, if ALICE households earned more income, they would be financially stable and would no longer require assistance from government and nonprofits. Greater household stability would also lead to a reduction in risk taking, and greater stability for all of Connecticut's stakeholders."

To read the report go to alice.ctunitedway.org.

a.baldelli@theday.com

Twitter: @annbaldelli

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