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Data reflects living costs outpace income for many

The story of someone living in the category of Access Limited, Income Constrained, Employed might be yours.

Or it could be your elderly neighbor’s story or the person who hands you food at your favorite fast food establishment.

There are so many variations of who might have an income just above the poverty level, while employed, but that person still struggles to meet even the bare minimum cost of basic household needs.

And that was before COVID-19 hit last year.

In Lycoming County with 44,585 households or a population of 113,664, the median household income is $55,045 compared to the state average of $60,905. Of those households, 24 percent are in the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed category and 14 percent are in the poverty level.

Locally, of the 11,355 households accounted for in the city of Williamsport in 2018, 30 percent or 3,456 fall into the asset limited category with 2,850 or 25 percent below the poverty level. Area community statistics include: South Williamsport, 2,622 households, 29 percent asset limited, 10 percent below poverty level; Montoursville, 1,931 households, 34 percent asset limited, 5 percent below poverty level; and Loyalsock Township, 4,492 households, 28 percent asset limited, 15 percent below poverty level.

Ron Frick, president of the Lycoming County United Way, cited ways in which increased community need have strained the resources of LCUW program partners.

Using the example of workers affected by the closing of a local industry, Frick sated, “You (might) have two wage earners at Shop-Vac, who were both trying to make ends meet and then both lose their jobs.”

“That’s what is putting pressure on United Way and our partners…the increases in meals that are going out the door at Sojourner’s and the number of people that are coming through American Rescue Workers and the shelters don’t have available beds. All of that is a direct result of the fact that we’re in an economy that’s been suppressed by this virus,” he added.

Frick noted that the number of people seeking information about where they can find some type of help has also increased, although many times the need is far greater than the available resources,” he said.

“The call volume at PA211 is double or triple what it was pre-pandemic. Then you have to try to refer those folks to an organization that may or may not have resources or funding available to support the person that is calling.

“Our volume of calls here is two or three times what it normally is because people get to a point where they try 211 or some other organization. They might know to call the Rescue Workers first, but the comprehensive assistance program money might be gone and there’s no availability. Now, that’s the challenge,” he added.

According to Frick, any of the programs offered by LCUW program partners which focuses on financial stability would support the employed but struggling members of the community.

“Anything at Sojourner Truth, anything at the American Rescue Workers, anything around education in order to provide, so that people aren’t in homelessness,” he said

He added that the goal is to keep people from moving from having good full-time jobs to being in the employed but struggling category and potentially slipping even further below the poverty level.

“We have taken the approach that, because of limited resources and not having the ability to develop new programs, we would try to support existing programs that are changing,” he said.

“I know that Cleveland (Way) has done a good job with trying to modify programs so that when people come into the Saving Grace Shelter, they’re getting education day one. They’re not just being in an emergency shelter,” he explained.

“What our goal is now that we have the refreshed data…we’re going to dig into that data to try to determine if there are specific things that are not being offered in the community which the United Way might be able to participate in. Then we’ll wrap that into the completion of our strategic plan that we’re hoping to do this year,” he added

According to a survey conducted by the state United Way, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, 1.3 million or 27 percent of the households in the state were already just one emergency away from financial crisis. These are the households where the wage earners make just enough that they often don’t qualify for assistance but they still find it difficult to pay for basic expenses.

They are also the households that didn’t have money set aside to cover basic household expenses in case of an emergency. The shutdowns caused by the pandemic exacerbated this situation, hitting those employed in the retail and hospitality areas especially hard.

On the other hand, many remained employed throughout the pandemic in essential jobs, such as in grocery stores, in child care or as home health aides. The opportunity to work from home was not afforded to these workers. Some did not have access to health benefits.

In Pennsylvania, statistics show that 65 percent of workers are paid hourly wages, which makes them more likely to have fluctuations in their income even in normal times, but especially in an unprecedented crisis like a pandemic.

According to a household survival budget compiled by the United Way, the minimum cost to live and work in a modern economy includes expenses for housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, technology and taxes. For a single adult without child care, that amounts to $23,940 per year. For two adults with two children in child care, the total is $65,976.

Speaking about this budget, Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania emphasized that it is not aspirational, but just covers the absolute essentials for a household. It does not include any savings for emergencies or future needs like college or retirement.

Because of the pandemic over half of these households were concerned with being evicted or having experiencing a foreclosure on their home. Rent and mortgage freezes have provided temporary relief, the survey noted, but with loss of income those in a struggling, but employed household may not be catch up once the freezes are lifted.

Households that responded to the survey were also more concerned with housing expenses during the pandemic than catching COVID-19.

The survey found that another reason many households are struggling is that there have been shifts in the composition of households with the amount of adults who have never been married sharing a household, as well as the number of senior households on the rise. There is also a growing number of people living alone or with roommates and adult children living with their parents.

In 2018, these household costs were estimated to be well above the Federal Poverty level of $12,140 for a single adult and $25,100 for a family of four. The United Way survey also found that 12 percent of the state households were below the poverty level in 2018, which brings the total of families struggling to survive to 39 percent.

Because this employed, but struggling population lacks the ability to make ends meet, one of the big public policy initiatives that the United Way advocates is a state earned income.

According to Phil Falvo, public policy director with the United Way, “We know there are a lot of advantages to having an earned income tax credit.”

“The economic impacts are measurable. There are also impacts on education outcomes as well as health outcomes. We know that refundable earned income tax credits for low wage earning families are more effective than non-refundable credits and we feel that this could be a great step forward in the economic recovery from COVID-19,” Falvo said.

The United Way also continues to advocate for the support of the PA 211 hotline as a major source for individuals seeking information about available resources.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw a large increase of individuals reaching out to PA211 especially for assistance for housing and food,” he said.

Falvo also cited the United Ways’ work in the support and expansion of high quality early childhood education to benefit parents as the economy recovers and they head back to work.

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