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More Centre County families are struggling to afford basic needs, United Way report shows

Centre Daily Times - 1/29/2021

Jan. 29—Nearly 1.4 million Pennsylvania households were struggling to afford basic necessities before the pandemic. For others, the coronavirus pandemic was the crisis that resulted in them being unable to pay their bills.

The United Way of Pennsylvania released its Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employment report, a financial hardship study published every two years, on Tuesday. The most recent data, a point-in-time snapshot of economic conditions across the state in 2018, shows that years of outpaced wages set the stage for the unprecedented impact of the pandemic, specifically for those who fall into the ALICE threshold. The acronym includes people who are living above the federal poverty level but still cannot afford essentials like housing, food, transportation and child care.

"Some workers from families we call ALICE have been the heroes of this pandemic, keeping grocery stores stocked, taking care of children at child care or providing home health aide support for the elderly or people with disabilities," Kristen Rotz, United Way of Pennsylvania president, said in a statement. "Other ALICE workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry experienced the emergency that tipped the household budget from just scraping by to being unable to pay their bills."

Since the last report, which used data from 2017, Centre County ALICE households increased by 1% — accounting for 28% of the county's 58,514 households. A total of 9,792 households (17%) are living in poverty, and 32,297 (55%) are living above the ALICE threshold.

Of county municipalities, Philipsburg Borough had the highest percentage below the ALICE threshold — 64%, according to the report. It was followed by State College Borough at 62% and Liberty Township at 50%.

Data shows that over the last decade, low- and middle-income working families lost buying power as housing and health care costs increased faster than their wages. This increase caused the number of ALICE households in the state to rise by 35% between 2007 and 2018. By 2018, 27% of Pennsylvania households met the ALICE threshold, a 21% increase from 2007.

According to the United Way, the statewide average annual cost of survival in 2018 ranged from $23,544 for a single adult, $26,436 for a senior citizen and $69,648 for a family of four with an infant and preschooler. The median hourly wage for a retail worker, the most common occupation statewide in 2018, was $11.08 ($22,160 per year).

"No matter how hard ALICE families worked over the last decade, the gap between their wages and the cost of basics kept widening," Rotz said. "These already fragile ALICE households are now facing an even deeper financial hole due to COVID-19."

Though the report does not take the pandemic into account, the United Way said years of outpaced wages resulted in more households needing help when the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated budgets and resulted in lost jobs.

"The pandemic is impacting more people than ever before, so more of our neighbors are becoming ALICE," Centre County United Way Executive Director Wendy Vinhage said. "People have called our office and our partner agencies needing help covering their bills, and these are people who never needed services previously."

Since March, Centre County nonprofits and community organizations have seen an increased need for food, housing and financial assistance — prompting groups to expand food distribution programs, affordable housing initiatives and grassroots efforts to ensure neighbors can make ends meet.

Vinhage said affordable housing continues to be a major issue in Centre County. In response, the United Way launched the Hamer Foundation Community Disaster fund last spring to address need. Since then, more than $200,000 has been distributed to help 200 households.

"Most of those individuals struggled to cover the costs of their housing after losing a job or having their work hours reduced," she said.

Along with its partner agencies, the United Way has been able to support those in need, but its nonprofit network is "more strained than ever to keep up with the growing need for services," Vinhage said.

The Pennsylvania United Way conducted a statewide survey in August about the economic impacts of COVID-19. The results show that ALICE households were more concerned about how to afford housing and living expenses than they were about contracting the coronavirus. According to the survey, ALICE homes only had one month or less of savings to cover expenses. The rest of Pennsylvania households had two months or more.

ALICE data drives the United Way's policy priorities. The health and financial stability of ALICE workers have a "multiplier effect," the agency said in a statement. Its top priority is for Pennsylvania to join other states with an earned income tax credit to help put earnings back in the pocket of working families to help pay bills and survive, Rotz said.

United Way plans to advocate for rental and utility assistance to help families that are months behind on bills and help connect people in need with community resources.

"We have advocated for state and federal earned income tax credits and affordable child care to move ALICE toward financial stability," Vinhage said. "The partnership we have between our nonprofit network is crucial since a person usually needs more than one agency to give them a holistic approach to move them toward financial stability."

Centre County households facing financial hardship due to the pandemic are asked to call the Centre County United Way at 238-8283.


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