For local social service agencies, the prevalence of families who earn above federal poverty levels but still struggle came as no surprise.
The 32 percent of Frederick County households that struggled to afford basic necessities, as highlighted in the United Ways of Maryland ALICE report, was confirmation of what many agency leaders already suspected.
“We’ve certainly seen a trend occurring since the economic downturn,” said Nick Brown, the Religious Coalition for Executive Human Needs’ executive director. “It’s not just the most obvious folks who are in need and vulnerable.”
Hugh Gordon, executive director of the Interfaith Housing Alliance, made similar comments in reference to clients his agency serves through its affordable housing and assistance programs.
“These are people that are living in our communities, contributing to our communities, working in our communities,” Gordon said. “They may have credit issues, or just because of the cost of living ... need help to get qualified to rent or own a home.”
While not surprising, the report still served an important purpose in putting numbers to what had been anecdotal observation.
“It has drawn a big circle over who it is in our community who have difficulties,” said Malcolm Furgol, United Way of Frederick County’s community impact director.
And with that circle more clearly defined, agencies are adjusting and expanding their services to help ALICE families, catching those on the brink before they fall into poverty and helping those in dire circumstances to improve their situations.
“Our role is those in-betweeners,” said Ken Oldham, United Way’s executive director.
A new strategic plan approved this month by the agency’s board of directors outlines a five-year plan to develop programs that offer health, education and financial stability to ALICE families, Oldham said.
Other service organizations are also considering changes based on the report.
Second Chances Garage, which offers discounted vehicles and affordable repair services, has looked to expand eligibility requirements for donated car recipients, according to Rick Trawick, the agency’s founder and president. Clients must earn a certain percentage below the federal poverty level — $31,500 for one person or $61,500 for a family of four in 2017 — to qualify for one of the donated, $500 vehicles.
Trawick hoped to raise the income to the minimum survival budget calculated in the ALICE report — $31,536 for one person or $75,732 for a family of four as of 2014. Those estimates will likely increase with more recent data.
The Religious Coalition has considered how to expand outreach and advertising to reach those who are struggling but might not consider themselves eligible for services, Brown said.
The agency has also considered that for these types of clients, the stigma associated with asking for help might keep them from reaching out.
“There’s certainly a humility or a humbling that occurs,” Brown said. “For us, it’s a matter of treating everyone with a baseline of respect.”
The by-municipality breakdown of ALICE households across Frederick County directed the Boys & Girls Club of Frederick County during its consideration of where to expand services, said Lisa McDonald, the club’s executive director. The organization is looking to open a site in Emmitsburg, which with 55 percent of residents below the ALICE threshold topped the list of Frederick County municipalities, according to the report.
McDonald described the report as “invaluable.”
“To actually put numbers to it really enabled me to see and understand the situations of our families,” she said. “It paints a picture of where the need is.”