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ALICE Report Reveals Financial Hardship in the Lehigh Valley

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EASTON, Pa. (WLVT) - Zandrea Mitchell balances two very different jobs, as she walks a financial tightrope every day.

"I'm barely making ends meet," she said. "I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul."

In the morning, she's a preschool teacher at Third Street Alliance, where she makes $13 an hour. Her other job is a local supermarket, where the pay is $11 an hour.

"I work in the deli department, and I also moonlight in the meat department, because there are others in the department who need hours also," she said.

Mitchell said between both jobs, she works 70 to 80 hours a week, and it's still a struggle to support herself and her two kids.

"I still live paycheck to paycheck, because food has to be purchased," she explained. "Kids have to eat. Lights have to be on. You have to have heat."

A new report from the United Way of Pennsylvania claims one in three Lehigh Valley Families live paycheck to paycheck. The acronym ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) refers to people who are working, paying taxes, and are above the federal poverty level, yet aren't enough to afford basic needs.

The report breaks down data from 2017 and calculates how much of the population qualifies as ALICE. In Northampton County, that's 30 percent. In Lehigh County, it's 25 percent, and in Carbon County, it's 32 percent.

"These people can often work two to three jobs, and they have to make tough decisions between 'Do I pay this electric bill, or do I pay for groceries this week?'-- and often, one unexpected expense can lead to a financial catastrophe," said Erin Connelly, the senior director of impact at United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. "[The report] sheds light on exactly what it costs to survive and then thrive in our region, and ultimately, what it's meant to do is start a dialogue."

For Mitchell, Third Street Alliance isn’t just a place where she works. She used to live at the shelter there when her family couldn’t afford a place to stay.

"You hear stories every day about other people, but this brought it home, and it was scary," she said. "I didn't know what i was going to do."

She and her kids left Easton this summer to move to Georgia to support her daughter's collegiate aspirations. After plans fell through, she came back to Easton, where she had no job -- and she couldn’t afford to move back into her old place, after her landlord raised the price of rent.

"I left here in July. I spoke to him in October," she said. "He's getting $1,200 for that same apartment that I was paying $715 for."

Now, she's paying $850 for a two-bedroom apartment. With the higher rent, she said she doesn't have anything left over for Christmas presents for her children.

"They'll get stuff from others, and they know, 'Mommy's here. Mommy loves you,' and sometimes, that just has to be enough," she said.

The data from the ALICE report also came up with what’s called a "household survival budget," the bare minimum a household would need to live and work.

In Northampton County, a family of four (which includes an infant and a preschooler) would need $67,404 for that budget.

"That is not counting any kind of savings," Connelly said. "That's not high-quality childcare. That's not going out to eat. That's not even paying for a phone, so that is a very basic bare bones budget."

In fact, the median household income for Northampton county families is $66,066, which is less than the household survival budget. Digging deeper, the report finds more than half of residents in the cities of Bethlehem and Easton are either ALICE or below the federal poverty level.

"The need has been evident for a long time. This data just put some harder numbers along with that need," Connelly said.

Addressing that need means looking at ways the community can help. At Third Street Alliance, that means giving people like Mitchell a temporary place to stay.

"I'm not ashamed," she said. "I'm grateful that Third Street Alliance exists, because if it didn't exist, where would I have been?"

"Home is like a sanctuary," said Alisa Baratta, the executive director of Third Street Alliance. "It's probably one of the most important factors in being successful in life in any way."

The organization offers a 90-day program for those who need housing to give people space and time to figure out what's next.

"We want you and your children in safe, affordable housing," Baratta said. "So when you're here living in the shelter, your job is to be looking for housing, in addition to your other job."

Next month, a group of Lehigh Valley homeless service providers will launch a new housing program aimed at preventing and diverting people who are at risk of homelessness by helping them with case management and financial assistance. The consortium includes Third Street Alliance, New Bethany Ministries, ProJeCt of Easton, Easton Area Neighborhood Center, Catholic Charities, the Lehigh Conference of Churches, and the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, among others.

"If we can prevent them from becoming homeless, we can kind of stop that pipeline or greatly diminish that pipeline," Baratta said. "That's our goal. We want to continue to work with people who are absolutely in need, but we don’t want to create more need."

Addressing housing is one thing. Addressing wages is another.

"Childcare salaries are huge issue for the industry," Baratta said. "It's endemic to the industry."

"A raise would be fantastic," Mitchell said. "If I was making more money, I wouldn't have to do both [jobs] -- or I wouldn't have to do as much on the part-time job, if the full-time job covered more of my expenses."

Baratta said Third Street Alliance has added wage increases in its strategic plan to help move towards a livable wage. It includes starting employees at $13 an hour once they earn their childcare credentials.

"Our plan is by 2022, we're starting people at $15 an hour," she said. "It doesn't compete with amazon right now, but that's the childcare industry. It's a notoriously underpaid industry."

Meanwhile, United Way of the Lehigh Valley is focusing on four areas to improve the quality of life for ALICE households:

  • childcare
  • transportation
  • workforce development
  • resources

"Sometimes, people are afraid to say anything," Mitchell said. "They don't want to let you know, but if you don't tell anyone, they can't help you. I'm blessed that I said something to someone, and more than one person came to my aid."

For the comprehensive ALICE report for Pennsylvania, click HERE.

For specific information about Northampton County, click HERE.
For specific information about Lehigh County, click HERE.
For specific information about Carbon County, click HERE.