Jan. 28, 2016 11:13 AM

New study shows nearly half of state can’t afford basics

ASH DURAN

I know ALICE. So do you. In fact, I’m checking the income brackets to see if I am her. There’s a good chance you are — 40 percent of the state falls into this category or below. ALICE is the one who makes too much for financial assistance, but clearly not enough to really make it based on our state’s cost of living.

ALICE is one broken transmission, one bout with the flu, one minor financial blip from poverty. They don’t qualify for help, yet can barely afford the basics like housing, food, transportation, healthcare and child care. And they are a big population. Coupled with those who live below the poverty line, this population that lives in the gap between poverty and enough to do more than scrape by constitute 32 percent in Lafayette Parish according to a recent study from United Way. (The U.S. poverty level is $23,550 for a family of four and $11,490 for a single person. Yet, single people need to make $17,340 to meet their needs based on Louisiana’s cost of living while a family of four need $42,444 annually to make ends meet. Far above the nation’s poverty line.)

In Lafayette Parish the breakdown is geographically diverse for those at or below ALICE with the city of Lafayette landing at 37 percent while Duson is in the worst shape at 51 percent and Milton and Youngsville falling in just the single digits (Milton is 5 percent and Youngsville is 9 percent.)

So, we know the reality of scraping by yet working hard is real. What is this study going to do to change that?

“United Ways throughout Louisiana have come together to give an identity and voice to people who work hard yet still struggle to make ends meet — people we call ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE lives in every parish in Louisiana,” says Sarah Berthelot, the president and CEO of Louisiana Association of United Ways.

The study is a way to open the discussion and better understand the challenges many Louisianans face and find solutions to make ALICE more “financially secure.”

One of the people highlighted in the statewide study, who perhaps best symbolizes ALICE, is Lafayette’s Ashley Duran.

I first met Ashley years ago at a resale shop where we were both looking for great deals. At the time she was dating a friend and I was immediately struck by her Twiggy-like beauty and asked her to model for the magazine I was working for at the time. She was beautiful, strong, fearless and continued to model for us (a gig that didn’t pay) for years thanks to a job where she was often free during the day and worked nights. And did she work. A lot. I’ll never forget loading the car after one shoot and her telling me she was pregnant. I knew she would take her same bravado and work ethic into motherhood to become the kind of mom who would do whatever it took for her child. She even modeled for us when she was visibly pregnant. With no less bravado.

Now he’s 5 and after a series of events and wise choices to put her son first, she’s working during the day at a coffee shop as a barista. She can’t take off work to model these days. She can’t take off work to find out why she was denied food stamps — twice. She can’t take off to go to school. She’s not the face of abject poverty. She’s not unemployed. She’s making less than $8 an hour and the girl is sharp as a tack. She’s not asking for pity or help. She’s just trying to do her best to make it all work.

And now there is a name for the Ashleys of this world.

“We see ALICE every day — hard workers who keep Louisiana’s economy running, but who aren’t always sure that they can put food on their own tables,” Berthelot says. “We find ALICE each day working behind cash registers, fixing our cars, serving us in restaurants and retail stores and caring for our young and our elderly.”

The ALICE report is definitive proof that 40 percent of families in our state are either below the poverty line or don’t earn enough to get by with our state’s cost of living.

In Berthelot’s letter that opens the 263-page report she puts it simply: “families are working hard, but are one small emergency away from a major financial crisis.”

ENTERGY was the corporate partner that helped fund the study along with help from JPMorgan Chase & Co. Researchers with United Way first delved into the ALICE project in New Jersey in 2009 but this is the first national effort to identify and study the ALICE population and includes a total of 10 states with an aim to give ALICE a voice and open a discussion that will create change and better opportunities for people like Ashley Duran and her son.

“I would love to go to school to change my situation, but again, I can’t take a day off work. Sometimes people just need a little extra help — even just moral support,” Ashley says. “I’m happy to learn about ALICE. I’m happy that there’s a name for me now.”