ALICE Households in the Age of COVID-19

Miranda Kawiecki, Staff Writer, Distribution Director

On April 20th, I had the opportunity to participate in a Morris County Women’s Advisory Committee meeting. I gathered information regarding ALICE households in the midst of the COVID pandemic from a presentation provided by representative Molly Rennie of United Way of North Jersey. I would like to thank Karen O’Keefe, the chairwoman of the committee, as well as Kasey Errico of Human Services and all committee members for making this article possible.

In the year 2021, one of the most detrimental consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is the global economic recession. This severe depression is a result of lockdowns and government-issued restrictions. Naturally, human necessities including housing, food, and employment are jeopardized. A group most disproportionately affected by the drop in earned income are single mothers. 73% of households led by single women with children are in the ALICE threshold.

You may be wondering, what exactly is ALICE? ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE represents households with incomes above the Federal Poverty Level but below the Household Survival Budget, the basic cost of living. Households in the ALICE threshold are distinguished by low-wage jobs, no savings for emergencies and future investments (education, home ownership, retirement, etc.), and marginalized groups. Households are at risk when the cost of living outpaces wages. In the words of Molly Rennie from United Way of North Jersey, who has fundraised campaigns for ALICE for almost 17 years, people who qualify as ALICE are essentially “really hard-working people.” They are striving to protect their homes and raise families in an environment in which it is difficult to stay afloat. The price of all family goods and services in New Jersey increases annually by 1.8%. On top of that, there has been a large increase in low-wage jobs and a great drop in high-wage employment opportunities. 

In New Jersey, the number of poverty-level households stays relatively flat. Conversely, ALICE households are steadily increasing. From recent studies at United Way, 14% of households are on the cusp of being ALICE. These include 48% of seniors and 52% of Black and 52% of Hispanic families. 37% of households in New Jersey are vulnerable to poverty. More specifically, those most likely to be ALICE include 45% of two or more races, 53% single male-headed with children, 69% under 29 years old, and, as stated earlier, 73% of single female-headed households with children. All of these statistics are staggering― but why are almost three quarters of single mothers struggling to meet the bare minimum? The women of the Morris County Women’s Advisory Committee provided insight into what this means for women in New Jersey, and why it remains a data trend. 

The Women’s Advisory Committee of Morris County studies the needs and promotes interests of women in Morris County. As stated on the official website of Morris County, the advisory board “serves as a fact finding committee by studying the needs, problems, interests, convents and capabilities of the women who reside and work in Morris County.” The committee “advises and promotes reforms in the law, public policy and public attitudes towards women” and also “recommends programs which will help meet the needs of the women of Morris County in areas including but not limited to: Aging, Disabilities & Veterans, Housing, Mental Health/Substance Abuse, Insurance, Youth Services, Domestic Violence/Trauma, Human Services, Sexuality, HIV/AIDS, Ethnic Population/Social Issues, Workforce Investment, and Women’s Leadership.”

The 11 Committee members, who are appointed by the Morris County Board of Commissioners, attributed the high number of single mothers on the cusp of poverty to childcare issues that truly shone through in the pandemic. Culturally, women are often assigned the role as “caretaker.” Their role as caregivers to children poses a greater interference and limitation to women’s work and social lives. Many working women had to leave the workforce to take care of children who were attending school virtually or immuno-compromised. This meant that households were losing income during one of the country’s greatest economic recessions since the Great Depression. 

It is also important to remember that a considerable amount of women lost their partners COVID-19. A great number of those who passed were men, as once again, it is a societal norm for men to be the main providers of a household income. Those who are essential workers or working in jobs that require in-person attendance, like landscapers, cooks, and grocery attendants, are the most affected. Widowed mothers who may not have been the head of their households are left to manage all finances and children without the support of a spouse or partner. 

Only 25% of people receive healthcare through the companies at which they work. Households grappling with illness are one car payment or hospital visit away from complete impoverishment. Mixed-status homes, meaning that some family members are legal US citizens and others are not, are often overlooked by social services that provide guidance, support, and advocacy to families fighting financially to pay bills and live in safe homes with electricity and running water. As reported by the National Center for Institutional Diversity, there are approximately 16 million people in mixed-status homes in the United States. A common family combination is undocumented parents and US-born children. Even if the children are citizens, the children may still be blocked from accessing resources.

ALICE households are the hidden impoverished. It is important to bring awareness to this unique yet scarily wide-reaching problem of having just enough to be ignored, but barely enough to get by. The United Way of North Jersey’s ALICE recovery fund focuses on promoting state-level advocacy for fragile households and providing emergency rental assistance. To donate to this fund, visit their website here

Pam Bennet-Santoro and Elaine Muller, who are the longest standing members of the Women’s Advisory Committee at nearly 18 years, described earlier social efforts made by the advisory committee. These included encouraging women to become politically active, exploring the treatment and recovery process of women in the Morris County jail, assisting in helping women over 65 with housing issues, and so much more. The committee works towards tangible change, inspired by Leanna Brown, a founder of the board as well as the first female state senator of New Jersey. Challenges posed by COVID-19 in respect to ALICE households mark the beginning of a new journey towards advocating for the protection of women, and families at large in Morris County from poverty.

Change is possible when issues as such are brought to light. And in the words of Muller, “Things start to roll when people get together.”