ALICE’s future? United Way report opens lines of communication

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Brian Trahan

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a three-part series focusing on the release of the Louisiana ALICE report by the Louisiana Association of United Ways. The specific numbers for West Calcasieu communities and how can they utilize the data is included in this article.
While the Louisiana Association of United Ways compiled an extensive data-driven ALICE report over the last nine months, with its subsequent release last week, one important question looms for communities in West Calcasieu. How can they utilize the data to help these households in the future?
Numbers from specific areas of West Calcasieu vary, from Sulphur and Carlyss just below the state average to DeQuincy, Starks and Vinton at over 50 percent of households living at or below the ALICE line.
The 253-page ground-breaking report is designed to explain the struggle of those who live at or below the ALICE line. An acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, ALICE is defined by those households above the poverty level but who are unable to afford a basic budget of housing, child care, food, transportation and health care.
The guidelines utilized by the United Way as a measurement for ALICE households are a family of four (two adults with two children) making less than $42,444 or just about double that of the U.S. family poverty level of $23,550, or a single adult household making less than $17,304. The eye-opening data suggests that 40 percent of Louisiana households (694,719) qualify as ALICE.
Sulphur Mayor Chris Duncan attended a special presentation at the United Way of Southwest Louisiana office in Lake Charles last week and came away with as many questions as answers.
“My first thought about the report was that the information was old,” Duncan said. “This data is from 2013 and quite frankly, a lot has happened — especially in Sulphur — since that time. So where are the numbers now? Has that percentage gone up? There is so much that is fluid in our parish.”
The ALICE report states that Sulphur has 39 percent at or below the ALICE line. Carlyss is the lowest in West Calcasieu at 38 percent, while Westlake is designated at 42 percent. Starks, Vinton and DeQuincy are all listed at 54 percent.
One of the itemized categories under the Household Survival Budget — the average costs to live in Calcasieu Parish monthly — is housing. While the parish average is $563 per month, Duncan believes that number is quite a bit higher since the 2013 data was compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Rent in Sulphur has sky-rocketed over the last couple of years,” he said. “Places that were $500 then are now $1,000 per month. Homes that were renting at $1,000 are now $1,700. What happens is that your families under the ALICE line are being forced out to live elsewhere.”
Duncan’s valid points lead to one reason why the ALICE report was released by the United Way — to spark dialogue in ways that will benefit communities. In places where the cost of living has risen exponentially, like Sulphur, it becomes a measure of supply and demand. But the human factor doesn’t necessarily reflect the laws of economics; families are struggling month to month and at what ceiling does the inflation come to a halt and recede?
“We have programs that are designed to help families that struggle,” Duncan said. “We have a utility assistance program in Sulphur that has been very effective. But there needs to be more, and that will have to start at the state level and funnel down to our local levels of government. The ALICE report certainly opens the door for all of us to continue to address this issue.”
Denise Durel, CEO of The United Way of Southwest Louisiana, agrees that the report is a jumping off point to begin initiatives. “Part of resource development is to have access to this data to help bring in those resources,” she said. “As an example, you can more accurately request grants or private funding with this report as a tool.”
Duncan’s hope is that communities can expound on the report and continue to update the data, with the help of agencies such as the United Way.
As Durel explained it, “We want this report to be on every coffee table, every desk and to be a part of everyone’s conversation.”
It’s a start … but it’s a very strong start. And ALICE needs all the help she can get.