Almost Half Of American Families Can’t Afford Rent And Food

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Tomwang112 / Getty Images

It is not easy being a poor person in America. And there are more working poor than many would like to believe. Approximately 51 million households in the United States don’t earn enough to afford basics like rent, food, transportation, and child care.

According to the United Way’s ALICE Project, that amounts to approximately 43 percent of Americans. That is nearly half of American households. The ALICE in ALICE Project stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, which means nearly half the households with at least one working parent are regularly barely able to make ends meet.

These are not the people you think of when you think “poor”: they are average everyday Americans.

The United Way describes ALICE as people like your childcare worker, your grandmother’s home health aide, the cashier at Target, or the guy who pumps your gas. They are people who you see every day.

As the United Way website describes it: “ALICE cannot pay the bills, has little or nothing in savings, and is forced to make tough choices such as deciding between quality child care, or paying the rent. One unexpected car repair or medical bill can push these financially strapped families over the edge.”

That reported 43 percent includes the families defined by ALICE, which is approximately 34.7 million families, and the 16.1 million families and households living in poverty, notes CNN. Technically, ALICE families live above the poverty level, but they are still unable to make ends meet. As of now, the project — which started as a pilot study in in New Jersey — includes 16 states.

“Despite seemingly positive economic signs, the ALICE data shows that financial hardship is still a pervasive problem,” ALICE Project director, Stephanie Hoopes said in a conversation with CNN. For the first time since the year 2000, unemployment is below 4 percent. That is great, of course, but what does that mean for these families that are already employed?

Because here’s the thing: the people who fall into these categories often do the kind of jobs we’re dependent on. One of the first type of workers mentioned are child care workers. That means the people you pay to take care of your children can barely afford to take care of their own.

I used to work as a babysitter/nanny because it was one of the only jobs I could bring my son with me to. I knew there was no way I could afford to pay someone to watch him, and my parents were unable to care for him all day because they worked as well. It was hard to find families that would pay the 15 dollars I was asking, even though I knew that with my level of experience, I should be charging more.

But I needed to work, so I ended up taking lower paying jobs just so I’d have income. I was lucky that I didn’t have to pay rent because my son and I lived with my parents. But I was trying to save money so that we could move out of their house and that was really difficult. Most of my paycheck went to to transportation, because it was also hard to find jobs that were within walking distance. I had to travel upwards of an hour each way, and public transportation isn’t cheap. I was lucky I didn’t have a car, because gas, tolls and parking would have eaten up my entire check.

I also had to spend money on fast food to eat while we traveled, because not all of the families I worked for had microwaves — or we’d be traveling during dinnertime and I didn’t want to wait until we got home to cook because I was exhausted.

I have seen so many parents complain about nannies and babysitters asking for 15 or 20 dollars an hour. It seems that these parents forget that the babysitters and nannies who are caring for their children are doing a job — this isn’t a hobby. While daycare is often a cheaper option, daycare employees are making even less than a private babysitter may be making. Home health aides are in a similar position. They make their living taking care of others, but they can barely afford to care for themselves.

So often, the people most directly affected by the income disparities are those who are in some sort of service industry. The cashier at Target or Wal-Mart, or your local grocery store is often barely making over minimum wage. Same with the person who works at McDonald’s or Starbucks. They are often working odd hours and long shifts on their feet, dealing with rude, entitled and often ungrateful people — and then, they still can barely keep a roof over their heads.

CNN notes that around 66 percent of jobs pay below $20 an hour. And even as states push to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour, by the time they get there, people will need to be making much more to keep up with the cost of living.

If you look at the ALICE Project reports, they break down what a family would need to earn to survive on a basic level per state. In King County, Washington, for example, a family of four (two adults, one preschooler and one infant) would need to make $43 an hour to be able to afford the bare minimum. According to CNN, only 14 percent of jobs in Washington pay over $40 an hour.

More often than not, these are the type of families that are making use of government benefits like Medicaid and SNAP. These are the people others who are more financially stable will say don’t deserve to earn a living wage because they do “less important” jobs. But these are literally the people who make our lives easier.

Without the person who makes the coffee, how would the CEO of Starbucks be a millionaire? And how would you get your grande skinny vanilla latte with almond milk? Just something to contemplate.

Everyone deserves the right to be able to afford the most basic necessities in life.