Percent of Households Below the ALICE Threshold, Chicago Neighborhoods, 2017

Do you know ALICE?

If you’re employed, but still don’t make enough for your basic needs and don’t own many assets, you know ALICE even if you don’t think you do.

The acronym stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed and it’s the center of a new report released last week by United Way.

Technically, ALICE households are those “with income above the Federal Poverty Level but below the basic cost of living.”

The Federal Poverty Level in Illinois is $24,600 for a family of four and $12,060 for a single adult.

The poverty level is far below what the United Way calls the bare-minimum Household Survival Budget, which defines who meets the ALICE threshold. The Household Survival Budget is what individuals and families need to meet basic costs of living.

“To clarify just how many households are struggling in Illinois, this Report measures what it actually costs to live in each county in the state; it calculates how many households have income below that level; and it offers an enhanced set of tools to describe the impact of financial hardship on them and on their communities,” the report’s authors wrote. 

“This is not merely an academic issue, but a practical one,” they continued. “The lack of accurate information about the number of people who are ‘poor’ distorts the identification of problems related to poverty, misguides policy solutions, and raises questions of equality, transparency and fairness.” 

In Illinois in 2016, the survival budget for a single adult is $19,212, or $9.61/hour. For a household of two adults, an infant and a preschooler, the survival budget is $57,144, or $28.57/hour, according to the United Way. While 12 percent of Illinois residents are in poverty, 24 percent of residents fall within the ALICE threshold.

In 2017, 39 percent of the roughly 2 million households in Cook County were either in poverty or met the ALICE threshold. That year, 44 percent of Chicago’s roughly 1 million households were below the ALICE threshold. 

When broken down by community area, the percent of households below the ALICE threshold increases starkly. In 2017, 63 percent of Austin’s roughly 32,000 households, 73 percent of West Garfield Park’s roughly 5,000 households, 72 percent of East Garfield Park’s nearly 7,000 households and 71 percent off North Lawndale’s roughly 11,000 households were struggling financially. 

Keep in mind, the United Way’s survival budget includes the cost of housing, food, transportation, healthcare and child care. It doesn’t include savings.

“People all over Illinois are struggling to get ahead,” said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th), who stood with representatives from United Way during a March 4 press conference, where the report was released.

“We know this intuitively, and we see it in our communities. I see it every day in my west side and west suburban district,” Lightford said. “ALICE allows us to put some real data behind that intuition.”

Another interesting nugget included in the study: Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) “cannot afford to live on their own. Instead, they are more likely than previous generations to live with their parents or with roommates. In Illinois, 36 percent of millennials lived with their parents in 2015, higher than the national average of 33 percent. Nationally, for the first time in more than a century, millennials are also less likely to be living with a romantic partner.”

According to the report’s authors, ALICE households “range from young families with children to senior citizens. They face an array of challenges: low-wage jobs located far from their homes, high-cost yet insufficient housing, poor access to high-quality child care, financial barriers that limit access to low-cost banking services, and having few or no assets to cushion the cost of an unexpected repair or health emergency. Some households become ALICE after an emergency, while others have been struggling near the poverty line since the Great Recession. Effective policy solutions will need to reflect this reality.”