Shining a light on the realities facing working families

Earlier this year, the Census Bureau released its 2022 American Community Survey data. As the Post-Gazette reported, the city of Pittsburgh’s overall poverty rate hovers at around 19%, which exceeds the national poverty rate of 12.6%. 

Though this data is alarming, it is, sadly, not surprising. United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania runs PA Southwest 211, a 24/7 help line that connects people in crisis to a broad array of services ranging from basic needs to internet access. Contacts have more than doubled from 2019, pre-pandemic, when we took 190,000 calls, texts and web self-service contacts, to 523,000 in 2022. Real-time data on our website shows that the top issues in our region are affordable housing, jobs and employment and utility assistance.  

While we hope this uptick in contacts is because more people know about 211, we know that the main reason for the increase is because people are unable to earn enough to support their families and they are reaching out for help. The federal poverty level does not fully measure the hardships facing those who are working, sometimes at more than one job, but barely surviving.  

Their struggles are, too often, invisible to policymakers who authorize, but then not renew, programs like the 2021 Child Tax Credit, which led to the lowest child poverty levels on record.   

To bring these struggles to light, we’d like to introduce you to ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. ALICE data is the metric that staff at United Ways in 26 states use to track how working people in our communities are faring and the reasons why their earnings do not cover their basic expenses.  

ALICE data shows that people need to earn significantly more than poverty-level wages to survive. The federal poverty level for a family of four in Pennsylvania is $2,500 a month. In Allegheny County, United Way’s ALICE data indicates that this family actually needs $6,202 a month to afford housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and basic technology. In Westmoreland County, where living expenses are slightly lower, the ALICE survival budget for a family of four is $5,723.  

Chances are that you know or are related to someone who fits ALICE criteria. Maybe you recognize yourself in ALICE. Individuals who meet ALICE criteria are service workers, teacher aides, child care workers and other essential members of our community who don’t make enough for their basic needs, yet sometimes make just enough money that they do not qualify for safety net benefits, such as the SNAP supplemental nutrition assistance program.  

Just how many households meet ALICE and federal poverty level criteria locally? It’s 41% in Armstrong, 33% in Butler County, 49% in Fayette and 42% in Westmoreland. In Allegheny County, 12% of households live below the federal poverty line, but when ALICE households are added, the number more than doubles: 37% of households live below the ALICE survival budget threshold.  

The takeaway: at least twice as many people in our region are struggling to meet their basic needs than those counted by federal poverty guidelines.  

That’s twice as many people whose struggles may be invisible, even to their neighbors. And, twice as many of our neighbors who are exhausted keeping their families afloat and have nothing leftover to spend on home improvements, dinner out or movie tickets, the very things that create moments of joy while also contributing to the economy.  

At United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, we are doing everything we can to support and elevate the work of our 110 partner agencies across Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette and Westmoreland counties. These partners are supporting thousands of families who fall in the ALICE category. But we and our partner agencies also need policy makers to understand what people are truly facing and act.  

Our hope is that ALICE is a call to action for policy makers and government officials about what a real safety net for working people would require. We also hope that ALICE and PA211 Counts serve as robust data sets for anti-poverty advocates who are on the front lines of changing systems that keep people from achieving their potential and their dreams by escaping the exhaustion of poverty.