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Advocates discuss issues facing ‘ALICE’ families in Arkansas

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The Arkansas Asset Funders Network held its “ALICE Champions Policy Conversation” on Tuesday to discuss three issues facing Arkansans today: housing, child care and medical debt.

Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed in Arkansas, or ALICE, was launched last year by the Arkansas Asset Funders Network to support upward mobility and minimize barriers for vulnerable and working Arkansas households; it is part of United ALICE, a national nonprofit organization.

“Over the last several years, but especially through covid, the impact on low-income … families on these issues of housing, medical debt, child care, to just everyday expenses, these issues are really impacting these families now, and we have to do something,” said Audra Butler, area director of rural housing for Arkansas-based Communities Unlimited.

“It pushes these families into very difficult situations where they have to choose between paying their medical bills, paying their mortgage or rent, or cutting back on medicine.”

Between 2007 and 2018, unemployment in Arkansas and across the United States fell to historic lows, the economy grew and wages rose slightly, according to Arkansas’ profile on the United ALICE website; yet 46% of Arkansas households struggled to make ends meet in 2018.

While 17% of Arkansas households lived below the federal poverty line, another 29% were ALICE households earning above the poverty line but not well enough to afford basic living expenses.

According to a 2019 study on economic hardship in Arkansas, 41% of families were ALICE households in 2017, and the number of Arkansas families unable to afford basic needs grew by 20% between 2007 and 2017.

Butler said affordable housing and aging housing are top issues in Arkansas today.

Affordable housing is supposed to cost about 30% or less of the household’s gross income. That includes utilities, mortgages, rent and home maintenance, Butler said.

“It’s going to be the biggest expense that most people have,” Butler said, adding that many ALICE families pay 40% to 70% of their household income on housing, while many low-income families in Arkansas face the same problem.

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Butler said Arkansas still needs a more centralized place where affordable housing advocates, providers, stakeholders and other non-governmental groups can work together and share such resources; she said there should also be a housing initiative committee in the state legislature.

Child care is another challenge Arkansas families face.

An annual budget for an ALICE family to thrive with an infant and a preschooler in Arkansas is approximately $46,000, and child care can cost a family a third or up to half of the budget, said Angela Duran, executive director of Excel by Eight .

Existing resources only meet the needs of about half of families in need of help with child care costs in Arkansas, Duran said.

Factors such as inflation and higher wages for lower-level jobs affect child care providers’ ability to hire staff with adequate educational background, training and experience in early childhood education, Duran said.

“Interestingly, the number of child care centers in Arkansas hasn’t really decreased like it has in other states,” Duran said.

Child care and early childhood are being debated in the state’s current legislative session.

While there has been a greater effort to draw attention to medical debt at the federal level in recent years, that doesn’t mean a major systemic overhaul is on the way, said Craig Wilson, health policy director at the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.

“I don’t foresee a drastic change in the next 10 years, so figuring out some protections in the short term would be the most feasible path,” Wilson said. “Part of the problem is that health care has become more expensive, especially for employers,” Wilson said.