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What about ALICE?

Those struggling before the pandemic continue to struggle during the recovery. We must not leave them behind.

Vibrant messages written in chalk adorned our sidewalks with bursts of color. Words of gratitude appeared on cardboard signs, lit up sports stadiums and dominated television commercials.

“Thank you, essential workers!” they read.

In the early days of the pandemic, we celebrated – and finally recognized – our essential workforce for their strength and resilience in keeping our communities afloat. Daily, we relied on these workers, many of whom struggle to afford the basics, falling into a demographic we call ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). We hailed them as a beacon of light and inspiration during a pandemic that otherwise shrouded our nation in darkness.

Still today, many of us continue to work from home as these low-wage workers risk their health to serve our meals, care for our elderly and check out our groceries. As this pandemic drags on, ALICE continues to show up for us.

In turn, we need to show up for ALICE.

The pressures are mounting for ALICE households as they try to recover from the pandemic amidst the largest cutoff of unemployment benefits in history and the end of the eviction moratorium. Because no matter how hard they’ve worked, ALICE households were priced out of survival even before the pandemic hit. Despite often working multiple jobs, they earn above the poverty level, but not nearly enough to afford even the lowest-cost options for household basics in the counties where they live.

The pandemic, compounded now by natural disasters, exacerbated these economic fragilities, widespread hardships and growing disparities — particularly by race and ethnicity — exposing them for all to witness.

This growing population of ALICE households, 25% of the almost 18,000 households in Whitman County, according to United For ALICE, a research and analysis group that’s been dedicated to strengthening the awareness and understanding of ALICE for over a decade. Led by United Way of Northern New Jersey, this data-driven spotlight on ALICE sparked a grassroots movement among United Ways, corporations, nonprofits and foundations in 24 states to work toward collaborative solutions. Together, we’ve been sounding the alarm that we ignore the needs of these households at our own peril.

United for ALICE’s latest report confirms that ALICE households and those in poverty were hit hardest during the pandemic. It reveals that when analyzed through an ALICE lens, a U.S. Census survey shows nearly 60% of these struggling households experienced a loss of income due to the pandemic, compared to 40% of households that afforded the basics before COVID-19 hit.

ALICE workers want to go back to work – but were more likely than high-wage workers to face reduced hours and employment barriers related to child care, health concerns and access to reliable transportation, according to United For ALICE surveys of 45,000 individuals across eight states. For example, 48% of ALICE households and those in poverty were likely to face obstacles related to caregiving for a child, older adult or person with special needs, compared to 20% of financially stable households.

The stakes are high not only for ALICE, but for all of us. If ALICE’s recovery falters, so too will the country’s.

This is not a job that any one government, nonprofit or employer can tackle alone. This requires systemic change at every level. We all must work in tandem to address the barriers, such as lack of access to quality health care and child care, that prevent ALICE from securing and maintaining employment. These are the same barriers that left this population so vulnerable to the pandemic.

We invite you to join United Way of Whitman County in the ALICE movement, using ALICE research to drive short-term and long-term change, and working together to lower the rate of ALICE households in our community.

Our essential workforce holds the key to our nation’s economic prosperity. Let’s turn our gratitude into a large-scale, collective effort to lift up ALICE and our economy, improving life for all. Because when ALICE can't pay the bills, we all pay the price.

Eric Fejeran

Executive Director of United Way of Whitman County

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