Story County fares poorly in ALICE report

Ronna LawlessStaff Writer
Story County fares poorly in ALICE report

At the end of June, the United Way of Iowa released a report that has some startling statistics. The ALICE report — which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — shows that 42 percent of Story County residents are not making enough money to sustain their households.

ALICE households are working adults who make too much money to qualify for many, if any, subsidies to help them.

One such adult named Ashley agreed to sit down for an interview about her experiences, with the agreement that her specific identity would be kept confidential. Ashley is in her late-20s, has a master’s degree and works in the nonprofit sector. Until just recently, Ashley was ALICE.

“I grew up watching my parents live paycheck to paycheck, and I guess that’s how I thought my life would always be,” Ashley said.

She went to college right out of high school, choosing a private, out-of-state college. “I just wasn’t making good choices from the very beginning,” she said. “I knew I wanted an education, but I didn’t think about how much college loan debt I was going to have. And like many young people, I just assumed there would be a great job waiting for me when I graduated.”

But it turned out the jobs that Ashley could find were low-paying, including being a teacher’s aide in the Minnesota public school system. Eventually she was working three jobs and still just barely getting by.

“I felt hopeless,” she said. “The more the stress built up, the more I always had stomach aches and was upset and tired all the time. Being sleep-deprived and sick caused me to make even more bad decisions.”

Ashley had a car, but the one she could afford was unreliable. “One day it broke down in rush hour traffic in the Twin Cities. The tow bill alone was $400,” she said. “But I had no other options.”

She was working 20 hours a day. She applied for food stamps, a process that took eight precious hours standing in line and filling out applications, and she qualified temporarily. Although she was grateful for the assistance those food stamps provided, “It was a humiliating experience to use them,” Ashley said. “If I had ice cream in my cart, I was worried that someone was going to judge me for that. I tried hard to use the assistance wisely, but it’s hard to take those looks people give.”

Ashley has flourished beyond the scope of ALICE at this point, and she attributes much of her success to her husband of two years. “He grew up in a situation similar to mine, but he taught himself how to budget, and now he’s taught me,” she said.

Jean Kresse, the president and CEO of the United Way of Story County, said she is frustrated with the public’s sometimes calloused comments about people on assistance like food stamps. “I often hear that someone has a tattoo, and how much did that tattoo cost but the person has to be on SNAP (the food stamps program). But we don’t know what that person’s situation is. Maybe they got the tattoo when they were doing better financially. Maybe they had a big medical bill that sapped their resources and need help getting back on their feet,” she said.

According to the ALICE report, a two-parent, two-child household must make $23.34 per hour combined, or $11.67 per parent, for a total household income of about $45,000 a year to cover the costs of living in Iowa. And that’s just for the bare minimum expenses, said Shannon Bardole, the community impact director for United Way of Story County: shelter, food, transportation and child care. It doesn’t include cell phones, “which are really a necessity for most working adults,” she said. It doesn’t include savings or cable television or Internet services.

An Iowa household stability budget says a family of four would need to make $94,020 per year, almost double the original projections, if it wanted extras, such as affording a smartphone and saving 10 percent of its yearly income.

“The point of the ALICE report is to help people understand some of the challenges the working poor in Iowa are facing,” Kresse said.

Aid programs like the SNAP program or child care assistance have rigid income restrictions, Ashley explained. But there are other programs in Story County that are available to people regardless of income, and those programs should be continued and expanded, she said.

“There’s a food pantry in every community in Story County and most of them don’t have income requirements,” Ashley said.

There are clothing pantries, like the Ballard Community Clothes Pantry in Huxley and the Harmony Clothes Closet in Nevada, and those do not ask for income information. They’re open to everyone, regardless of income. “If more people would use these opportunities, it would decrease the stigma of going there when you’re in need,” Ashley said.

Similar are the free meals, like Food at First, which are open regardless of income. “Being in ALICE or living in poverty can be a very isolating situation. What people need is a community,” Ashley said. “Feeling like a part of the community is such an important thing — it might even be more important than the meal itself.”

Kresse said there is “no magic wand solution” for curing poverty or near-poverty ALICE status. But community involvement and support are important factors to uplifting people in these situations.

“These people are not looking for a handout; they just want their communities to try and help solve some of these issues.” Kresse said.

One of the factors that hurts Story County’s statistics in the ALICE report is the high cost of housing in Ames. “On average, 44 percent of Iowa renters pay more than 30 percent of their household income on rent, and 17 percent of owners pay more than 30 percent of their income on monthly owner costs, which include their mortgage. There is a wide variation across the state, with the highest housing burden across renters and owners in Story County at a rate of 34 percent; the lowest is 14 percent in the rural and sparsely populated Audubon, Ida and Osceola counties,” the report stated.

The high cost of housing in Ames causes many ALICE residents to live in nearby communities, which increases their transportation costs and makes the use of public transportation impossible, Ashley said. The report rates Story County as being “poor” when it comes to affordable housing and job opportunities, one of the lowest ratings of any county in Iowa.

According to the ALICE report: “… the cost of keeping people on the street ranges from $35,000 to $150,000 per person per year, while the cost of keeping formerly homeless people housed ranges from $13,000 to $25,000 per person per year. … The highest numbers are for chronically homeless people, who are the most vulnerable and disabled. Expenses include temporary housing, as well as crisis services such as emergency room treatment, substance abuse and mental health care, and police and court costs.”

“People shouldn’t have to be homeless before we help them,” Ashley said. She and her husband are lucky, she said. “We have a wonderful landlord and pay $625 for a two-bedroom in Ames. My sister pays $750 for a studio apartment in Ames, which is terrible.”