The welcome report this week about the improving economic status of the working poor in Frederick County was in some ways like a cruel joke, a welcome piece of good news followed by a dire warning.
We feel a little bit like Charlie Brown of the “Peanuts” comic strip did when Lucy pulled away the football every time he tried to kick it.
The United Way of Frederick County said that, for the first time in a decade, the number of county residents struggling to afford basic necessities declined slightly. At the same time, it predicted that the next report — which is due out in 2022 and will cover the pandemic ravaged year of 2020 — is very likely to be bleak.
Of course, we all know that the economic damage of the pandemic is falling most heavily on the working poor and minority communities. Still, it can be sobering to be reminded so bluntly of what those folks are facing.
The organization releases its comprehensive report every two years on ALICE households. The acronym stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – or basically the working poor.
This year’s report covers statistics from 2018, the most recent year from which numbers are available. United Way found that 37 percent of the 95,903 households in Frederick County qualified as ALICE households, down from 39 percent in 2008.
The report also said median income in Frederick County rose substantially between 2016 and 2018, growing from $89,800 to $95,850. Those are trends and numbers worth cheering.
But the dark shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, and especially its crippling economic impact, falls across those numbers like the Ghost of Christmas Future in Charles Dickens’ classic story “A Christmas Carol.”
“No one knows where the pandemic is going in coming months,” Maria Herrera, the executive director of the Spanish Speaking Community of Maryland Inc., said during a panel discussion on the report. “But I do foresee additional challenges that will only move more families to ALICE and poverty levels as we continue to weather this economic and emotional storm.”
The United Way defines the ALICE threshold as the income needed for individuals and families to maintain a basic standard of living.
In Frederick County, the organization said, individuals are considered to be below the ALICE threshold if they make less than $47,268 per year, while the level for a family of four (two adults, an infant and a preschooler) rose to $109,176. It was the first time an ALICE budget had exceeded $100,000.
While the federal poverty level in 2018 was $12,140 for an individual and $25,100 for the same family of four, the ALICE threshold goes beyond mere subsistence to measure the living needs of the working poor.
The report noted that both the unemployment and federal poverty rate in Frederick County fell over the past two years. The unemployment rate dipped from 4 to 3.7 percent, while the number of individuals and families living below the poverty rate dropped from 8 percent to 6 percent.
However, the unemployment rate in Frederick County nearly reached 10 percent in May, the worst month of the pandemic recession so far. Therefore, it is certain that the 2022 report will paint a much darker picture.
The United Way report makes clear once again that poverty in our community falls most heavily on minorities, especially Blacks and Hispanics. Hispanics make up the largest group of working poor, employed in lower-level jobs and struggling to make ends meet.
More than half of all Hispanics here live above the federal poverty level but below the ALICE threshold. It is that way for 40 percent of Black residents, 31 percent of Asians and 30 percent of whites.
The message to our county leaders and to our nonprofit organizations is very clear. The real progress made so far in lifting folks out of poverty is fragile. We must redouble our efforts to support individuals and families who have been battered by the economic effects of the pandemic. The fight is far from over, as the pandemic’s aftermath drags on into next year.