New United Way report reveals the hidden struggles of working Pennsylvanians

By: - June 18, 2019 2:01 pm

Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, speaks during a news conference in the Pennsylvania Capitol on Tuesday, 6/18/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Preston Stackfield, 29, of Carlisle, married his high school sweetheart, and together they’re raising three kids. He has a job with a local bank. It sounds like the American Dream come to life.

But like more than 1.2 million of his fellow Pennsylvanians, Stackfield walks a ragged line every day. As hard as he works to keep his finances in order, all it would take is one reversal of fortune to plunge his family into a serious economic crisis.

The United Way of Pennsylvania has a name for those like the Stackfield family: “ALICE,” an acronym for “Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, and Employed.” They’re people who are earning money above the federal poverty level, but who still don’t make enough to pay for such essentials as housing, food, childcare, or transportation — or to save for the future.

“This is someone you have already met, but whose story you don’t know,” United Way of Pennsylvania President Kristen Rotz said during a Capitol news conference Tuesday, as the charitable organization rolled out the results of a statewide study of the financial struggles of every day Pennsylvanians.

Preston Stackfield, 29, of Carlisle, speaks during a news conference in the state Capitol on Tuesday, 6/18/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

To qualify as an “ALICE” household, a single wage-earner had to make an income ranging from the federal poverty level of $12,060 up to $20,760 a year, or an hourly wage of $10.38 an hour, in 2017, the most recent year for which data were available.

A family of four with two adults, one infant, and one toddler had to make the federal poverty level of $24,600 to a maximum of $59,340 a year, or a combined hourly wage of $29.67, to meet basic expenses, according to the report.

In Dauphin County, for instance, 25,973 households, or 23 percent of the county’s total, were at the “ALICE” threshold, the report indicated. In Allegheny County, 15 percent of the county’s total 537,381 households — 82,439 — met the “ALICE” threshold, the report showed.

“We all know ‘ALICE,'” Rotz said. “Some of us have been ‘ALICE’ before.”

Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, speaks during a news conference in the Pennsylvania Capitol on Tuesday, 6/18/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

With the report’s release, Pennsylvania becomes the 20th state to take stock of this working population. The project launched in New Jersey in 2012, when the United Way of Northern New Jersey started its own exploration of those in need.

“This might seem odd in the middle of so much good economic news,” about low unemployment and a booming stock market, but “this good news is not reaching everyone,” Stephanie Hoopes, of the United Way of Northern New Jersey, said Tuesday.


Source: United Way of Pa. ALICE Report

United Way officials said Tuesday that they plan to use the trove of data gleaned from the report to help tailor programming for “ALICE” households, to lift them out of economic insecurity, and to put them on the path to long-term stability.

“There is no single solution,” Tim Fatzinger, of the United Way of the Capital Region, said. “It’s putting the right people together to lift people up. How can we remove barriers to make them self-sufficient? These are the folks we help every day.”

And that’s someone like Preston Stackfield, who says he and his family are working hard every day “to improve ourselves and our financial future.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.