Are you living below the ALICE line? 43% of Americans can’t cover the basics


Two-thirds of all jobs in the country are low-paying at less than $20 an hour or $40,000 a year
About 43% of households, or about 51 million, don’t earn enough to cover the basics.
Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or ALICE, is a worrisome group for America

What’s the minimum amount of money you need in America to get by? How many Americans are earning that? Are Americans doing well, or poorly, or somewhere in between? It’s hard to measure these things, but incredibly important to try. What is your monthly nut, the minimum you need to earn to pay your basic bills, and how does your income compare to that? I’ve taken several cracks at this with The Restless Project. The United Way has now done an admirable job with its new ALICE project — a study of a group the organization has identified as “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.”

Here’s is the organization’s answer: 43% of households, or about 51 million, don’t earn enough to cover the basics.

But isn’t the economy doing better? Yes and no. The unemployment rate is low, but wages are low, too. New jobs don’t help if they are minimum-wage jobs. Another harsh data point from the study: two-thirds of all jobs in the country are low-paying at less than $20 an hour or $40,000 a year, if full time. That’s far less than the $59,000 needed to cover the basics in Ada County, Idaho. Live in a place like Portland ($73,000) or Seattle ($85,000) and that $20-an-hour job looks even worse.

To perform its calculations, United Way added up local expenses for housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, technology, taxes, and miscellaneous and came up with county-level minimum budgets for these basics. In Ada County, $30-an-hour wages are needed to support that budget.

Some states are worse off than others. California, Florida, and Texas have the largest number of ALICE households in the country, the organization says. In California, 49% of residents are below the ALICE line. In Florida, 44%, and Texas, 43%.

While North Dakota’s mix of low housing costs and good-paying jobs made it the most prosperous state for residents, no state is really spared. In all 50 states, at least 32% of residents are below the ALICE line.

“Despite seemingly positive economic signs, the ALICE data shows that financial hardship is still a pervasive problem,” said Project Director Stephanie Hoopes, Ph.D., who leads the data analysis.

I’ve long argued that terms like poverty and middle-class muddy the waters in discussions like this. Folks who earn $20 an hour have a lot more in common with folks below them on the economic ladder than folks in what I have started to call the “Lucky” class — people who by virtue of family, connections, or an outsized wage don’t suffer from housing cost anxiety. You shouldn’t have to be lucky to know your kids can go to college and you can afford a decent home. The American Dream is dead if luck is the only path out of that kind of anxiety.

How does your monthly nut budget compare to the ALICE Project results? Tell me in comments or write to me privately.