ALICE lives here: 13% of families are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed

Ridgefield’s 4.7% unemployment rate places it lower than most surrounding towns, but it doesn’t tell the story of those who are struggling to make ends meet.

“I’m on the ground,” said Director of Social Services Tony Phillips last week. “And I see a lot of people who are unemployed or underemployed.”

According to Phillips, 13% of Ridgefield households are surviving on low wages, while an additional 4% live at or below the poverty line.

This underemployed and underpaid population is called ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

As explained by the United Way, they are those living above the poverty level — $12,883 a year for an individual — but still struggling to afford basic necessities like food and housing.

They are residents who couldn’t find a full-time job so they might be working two part-times without access to benefits.

They are the ones who earn minimum wage, or never get enough shifts to make up for all their expenses.

They are working the cashier at the local pharmacy, or serving food at a popular fast-food restaurant.

They are the ones who can’t afford any mistakes.

They can’t replace a broken headlight, or get sick and miss a day’s pay.

They might have a college degree and live with their parents, or they might hold a high school diploma and work to sustain a family while renting one room for a few hundred dollars a month.

“There’s a group of people out there that are employed but don’t have many assets. They don’t own a home, they’re renters,” said Phillips.  

“They don’t have a lot of savings,” he added. “Basically, they’re living paycheck to paycheck.”

The bare minimum

According to United Way’s Household Survival Budget, in the state of Connecticut a single adult needs $22,404 to $22,848 as the bare minimum to afford housing and basic necessities. For a family of four, the number is $69,444 to $71,292 —  more than triple the U.S. family poverty rate of $23,850.

Under this survival income, an individual can afford to spend a maximum of $200 a month on food and save 10% of monthly earnings for unexpected costs.

It doesn’t include toiletries, or additional goods like professional attire.

Most ALICE households qualify for little or no government assistance.

“A single-parent, three-person family earning federal minimum wage and relying on a basic assistance package falls 50% short for basic household expenses in almost every state, according to Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), a Washington, D.C.-based research organization,” said United Way’s 2016 ALICE report.

“In Connecticut, benefits are targeted toward the poorest families, and as earnings rise, many families are no longer eligible even though they are struggling.”

Seniors

Retired seniors are likely to own their homes, but their Social Security income is usually not enough to get by.

“We have an ever-aging population of people who are outliving their savings and what their pensions can afford,” said Phillips.

According to the Ridgefield Senior Guide, 42% of town residents who are above the age of 60 received food stamps in the last year.

“Many [older] people who live in big homes can’t afford to put food on the table, pay for their medication or heat,” said Phillips, “or even their pets. If they break their glasses they wear broken glasses for months or years. … there’s a thousand different variations of why people need help and what types of help they need.”

Others may have had to leave their jobs earlier than planned because of a medical condition or disability, having to wait a few years before their pension kicks in.

“Some people who have owned their homes for 40 or 50 years and they’re living off of Social Security, but they don’t have money to fix the roof or do anything. They might even be deferring their taxes,” said Phillips.

A 59-year-old Ridgefield resident who has come to Social Services for assistance can no longer work, and she has no income other than her disability payment.

“She has to wait six years for her pension,” said Phillips of the resident, a former schoolteacher.

Assistance

Social Services offers help running the Medicare Choices Program, provides a food pantry and an energy savings program, and provides options for disabled and elderly residents.

The department also focuses on connecting residents to available state and federal programs, affordable housing, and walking them through the different application processes.

Phillips said wait lists for affordable housing are often four to five years, so he urges people to come as soon as possible to start their application.

“I don’t know that there could ever be enough affordable housing,” he said.