A Q+A with Courtney Edgcomb, president of United Way of Volusia-Flagler Counties.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused 30 million people in the U.S. to file for unemployment, creating the perfect climate to expose the hardships faced by Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck, said Courtney Edgcomb president of United Way of Volusia-Flagler Counties.
On Monday, May 4, United Way released its ALICE Report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), that found when the pandemic impacted Volusia and Flagler County, over 119,000 households were one emergency away from financial ruin, according to a press release. The report, released every two years in partnership with United for ALICE, revealed a 10-year record high of these ALICE families.
"We’ve never seen anything like the COVID pandemic or the crisis that our communities are in right now, and can really tell that it’s having a significant effect on the ALICE’s population ability, because they also are not typically a group of people who can save money every paycheck," Edgcomb said. "If they’ve been laid off or their hours have been cut, they don’t even have anything to fall back on, as far as savings accounts to get them through this time."
United Way has seen a 200% increase in calls to its 211 First Call for Help hotline since the middle of March, finding families in need of assistance who never needed services in the past, Edgcomb said.
In this Q+A, Edgcomb explains why the ALICE report matters:
Q: Why is this data analysis so important?
A: The updated report has been very helpful. The chambers use it in conjunction with us. Other community groups use the ALICE report to better understand the gap between where federal resources will support families if they fall below federal poverty guidelines, and what it actually takes to live sustainably in our communities, and that gap is right where ALICE sits. And when we’re finding out that a third of our populations in both Volusia and Flagler County fall right within that gap, and so we need to be there to support one out of three people.”
Q: In Volusia County, the data shows 33% of households are ALICE, and in Flagler, 30%. What are some ways the pandemic could be affecting these families?
A: You know how a lot of companies were saying if you feel sick, if you’re running a fever, you’re not supposed to come into the office? Well, if those companies are not offering paid sick leave, then those are hours that people are not able to work and they’re not going to get paid for. It automatically creates a gap in their budget every month.
Additionally, you have to think that there’s got to be families with an increased energy cost in their home. If you’re not going into the office, but you’re working from home, your electric bill will probably increase, your water bill, things like that, especially families who don’t have access to wifi in their homes.
The childcare, I think, is probably one of the biggest pieces because when you’re thinking about a family that might utilize Early Learning Coalition’s resources for subsidized childcare, but a lot of their centers have either been shut down or reduced capacity, and so now, are they able to find childcare for their kids? Let alone school-aged children where there’s not a lot of resources available there either.
Q: The ALICE Essentials Index is a new measurement in this report. What does this tell us about the financial fragility of ALICE households?
A: Within the ALICE Essentials Index, it talks about the mismatch between wages and the cost of basic needs, and what I thought was really interesting is that the cost of housing, childcare, food, transportation, health care and a smartphone plan — those things rose at nearly twice the rate of inflation. So all of those pieces, which would be hard to think about how you could do your job or live your life without any of those aspects, the cost of those runs about 3.4% annually over the past decade, versus 1.8% which was the rate of inflation.
People who fall within the ALICE population, their wages have remained stagnant. So they haven’t been able to make up any of that gap. Their expenses have just increased.
Q: Here in Volusia and Flagler County, what would you say is the household basic that puts the most strain on ALICE families?
Housing, for sure. We definitely see that housing has been the most taxing expense that anyone has to afford here. Our ALICE household survival budget for a family of four in Volusia County is $955 a month, so you’re thinking that’s maybe a two-bedroom or a three-bedroom house or apartment — No.
I think it would be hard to find housing for a family of four under $1,000 a month, and that’s what we’re finding. It’s so hard to find affordable and attainable housing for families because the problem doesn’t just start with what the rent is per month. If you have to have a first, last and security [deposit], but you’re not making enough to save, I don’t know how you’ll be able to come up with $3,000 right of the bat just to get into a house, or into an apartment before you can even start paying your monthly rent.
Q: How should the findings in the report be used to help these families?
There’s a lot of different things that we could do. The way that United Ways are working to support ALICE families through this is to talk about the three main things that we really promote.
The first thing is to give. There are lots of organizations that are supporting ALICE families. They’re providing subsidized childcare, rent assistance if someone were to fall in hard times; they’re providing health programs for those kids, mentoring opportunities for some of those families, financial education classes. That’s how we do our grant funding every two years, is based on how these programs are helping ALICE families.
Second thing is to advocate. We’ve been doing a lot of work with state and federal legislation to find ways to have the government support additional resources. Just because you make over the federal poverty guideline doesn’t mean that you’re in a position where you can manage day-to-day expenses. So we’re trying to advocate for a legislation that would additionally support ALICE families.
And the last thing is to volunteer. There’s a lot of ways to do that: If you’ve got expertise or you want to mentor someone, you want to do some skill-sharing, those are some other ways to help ALICE families through volunteer efforts.