CUMBERLAND — Terri Jessie is grateful for her job, but frustrated at a system that penalizes her for working.
Jessie, a Cumberland resident who works part-time as an administrative assistant for County United Way that serves Allegany, Garrett and Hampshire and Mineral, West Virginia, counties, is among a record number of workers that have been priced out of survival.
Nearly 40% of Maryland’s more than two million households were already one emergency away from financial ruin and not earning enough money to pay for basic needs including food, housing, health care, child care and transportation.
And that was before the global pandemic struck.
The percentage, based on 2018 data, “is clearly higher in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating economic impact on our residents,” a recent report states.
The number marks a 10-year record high, according to the state’s latest Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — or ALICE — report released by United Ways of Maryland and sponsored by Kaiser Permanente.
“While nine percent of these households live below the Federal Poverty Level … another 30 percent are ALICE households — earning more than the FPL, but not enough to afford basic household necessities,” United Way officials stated.
The Maryland ALICE Survival Budget that covers just the most basic necessities was $87,156 for a family of four and $33,636 for a single adult in 2018.
“Today, as we face record unemployment rates, we know the number of Maryland households that are struggling is more than has been accounted for in our report,” Franklyn Baker, president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland, stated on the organization’s website. “The pandemic has exposed exactly the issues of economic fragility that the ALICE Report reveals and for thousands that the impact of COVID-19 has suddenly thrust into the ALICE population.”
According to the report, 55% of households in Allegany County were below the ALICE threshold.
For 19 years, Jessie has lived in public housing, which bases the cost of rent on a tenant’s income.
She started her job in February 2019 and works 45 hours every two weeks.
“The rent went from the $50 minimum to $280 … per month,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”
To complicate her, and many other people’s, situation, Jessie must secure affordable child care for her 7-year-old as local schools, because of the novel coronavirus, will begin virtually.
At times she feels defeated because some people that don’t work “get maximum food stamps (and) pay minimum rent,” she said.
Jessie talked of other folks who are employed, but have poor credit, and pay roughly $600 for rent per month in a government-run home.
“That’s outrageous to live in Allegany County and pay that much for public housing,” she said.
“It’s amazing how many people are one paycheck or two paychecks from … being in trouble,” Jessie said.
Many folks have trouble getting a job in the county that pays enough for their household to survive, she said.
“I’ve worked in retail, fast food … you can’t raise a family off of that,” Jessie said.
People who receive government assistance sometimes feel negatively judged, she said.
“It’s wrong to believe that if you get food stamps or public housing, you don’t work,” Jessie said. “A lot of people … wouldn’t be able to eat if it wasn’t for those food stamps.”
The COVID-19 pandemic adds a new layer of hardship to an already vulnerable part of the local population, County United Way Executive Director Juli McCoy said.
“A far greater number of people are struggling than what is at face value,” she said of data in the report that’s roughly two years old.
The report’s findings should be used to immediately secure state and local support that addresses challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on ALICE families while businesses and schools remain closed indefinitely, McCoy said.
“These folks are unable to get help,” she said and that added one life event such as a necessary car repair “begins a domino effect (of) no car, no job, no income, no home.”
McCoy talked of income inequities across the state.
A common local scenario includes grandparents that because of the heroin epidemic now raise their grandchildren and struggle to make financial ends meet.
“There’s just so many factors that play into this,” she said.
“No one is immune to being in this situation,” McCoy said. “We’re all ALICE … especially right now.”
For more state information about ALICE, visit UnitedForALICE.org/Maryland.