ALICE lives in Pierce County. ALICE represents between 22 and 24 percent of residents here, people who are employed but still struggle to cover basics such as food and shelter. ALICE families are made up of every race, gender and age.
ALICE is a United Way acronym for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed; it’s a word used to describe households earning more than the U.S. poverty level, but less than Pierce County’s cost of living.
These families are stuck in limbo, barely making it month to month. Bankruptcies, divorce, foreclosures and predatory lending are some traps that keep them in the cycle of poverty with no solutions in sight.
In the United Way spirit to find a community’s toughest challenge and tackle it, the local arm of the nonprofit recently reached out in a new way to families who are one emergency away from financial devastation.
The United Way has created Centers for Strong Families to help working families navigate crisis situations, obtain skills and job training, deal with predatory lenders, pay off debt, budget and save. Financial coaching can shed light on benefits many are eligible for but might not be aware of, such as the earned income tax credit.
ALICE families aren’t sent home with a pep talk and a checklist; they build relationships. They meet over a 24-to-36-month period with advocates trained in the financial sector.
Two centers opened in August, operated by Goodwill Industries and Sound Outreach in the Hilltop area. The centers, the first in Washington, will join a network of 80 others nationally. Dona Ponepinto, president and CEO of United Way Pierce County, would like to see eight local centers by 2021.
When Ponepinto worked for United Way in Detroit, she saw how Centers for Strong Families helped families devastated by the crash of the auto industry during the Great Recession. Initial research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows a 400-percent return on investment in centers where financial services are bundled.
Ponepinto is confident the same results will be seen in Pierce County, where thousands of families have to weigh paying their bills against buying food or filling a prescription. The United Way understands there must be intervention to break the cycle.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote all happy families are alike; the same can be said for poor ones. Hunger, frequent moves, stress and strain are common to all. It’s not difficult to see how generational poverty gets perpetuated.
Over the last five years, while poverty rates have remained constant in Pierce County, United Way campaign donations have dropped about 15 percent. Blame the exodus of a few big corporate donors, such as Russell Investments and Weyerhaeuser, and the changing face of philanthropy.
Corporate social responsibility remains alive and well, but more businesses are forming their own foundations. The United Way is no longer the only opportunity to give through payroll, but it remains one of the best.
Supporting Centers for Strong Families is one step toward curtailing poverty and giving children a fighting chance. The city of Tacoma agrees, which is why it increased its contribution to $219,000 in the 2017 budget to go directly to these centers.
We should all look forward to the day when we can say: ALICE doesn’t live here anymore.
For more information
To learn more about United Way of Pierce County’s Center for Strong Families, go to uwpc.org/alice, or call 253-272-4263
For emergency help, dial 211 to reach the South Sound call center.