With numbingly typical hyperbole, President Trump has declared more than once that the United States is now in the midst of the best economy it has ever had.
In fairness to the commander in chief, it is pretty good in relative terms. Unemployment is low and so is inflation. The last recession, which was a humdinger, is now a decade in the rearview mirror. Growth has been steady.
But the sunny pronouncements on the economy paper over some harsher realities. That point was made clear last week, thanks to a report issued by the United Way of Pennsylvania that found that 37% of households in the commonwealth – a little more than 1 in 3 – are struggling to get by.
The ALICE Report for Pennsylvania zeroes in on families that are working, above the federal poverty level, but still barely keeping their heads above water. ALICE is an acronym for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” and that designation describes 24% of the households in the state. The remaining 13% fall below the poverty level. The ALICE families are, in theory, doing all the things they are supposed to be doing, like toiling at jobs and paying the rent, but they are still unable to pay for basics like car repairs and medical expenses or put anything in the bank. They also do not qualify for many forms of government assistance.
The number of households that fit the ALICE classification in Pennsylvania jumped 14% from 2007 to 2017, indicating that some families permanently lost ground as a result of the Great Recession. The report points out that, during that decade, inflation increased by 22%, but the bare-minimum family budget went up by 33% and the median income increased by only 20%.
Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, said that ALICE families are “the keystone of the Pennsylvania economy” and they represent “a large portion of the purchasing power of Pennsylvania households. ... ALICE can be a childcare worker, nursing assistant, office worker or retail associate. Our communities would not thrive without the contributions of ALICE.”
According to the United Way, 27% of the families in Washington County are ALICE families, and 9 percent are at or below the poverty level. In Greene County, those numbers are 28% and 14%, respectively, and 29% and 16% in Fayette County.
Recent news reports have indicated that the Trump administration is considering lowering the poverty threshold, which would mean fewer people would qualify for assistance. As of 2015, you were impoverished if you were single and had an annual income of $11,770; for a family of four, with two children, the amount was a paltry $24,250. If anything, the poverty threshold should be raised, so some of the ALICE families who need help can get it. Raising the minimum wage would give low-income families a boost, as would job-training programs that can help people break out of low-wage employment.
Gov. Tom Wolf got it right when he said this about the United Way report: “More Pennsylvanians have jobs than ever before, but too many hard-working people are making poverty wages. It should be unacceptable to all of us when people are working harder and harder, but still struggling to pay for housing, food, child care, transportation and other basic needs.”