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Report: Pa. families struggling

More than 1 million families in Pennsylvania who don’t qualify for federal assistance still struggle to afford essentials like housing, food, child care and transportation, according to a recently released United Way of Pennsylvania report.

Because despite earning above the federal poverty level, the United Way of Pennsylvania’s Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed — or ALICE — report says, those families’ incomes fall short of the county’s basic cost of living.

“It’s not surprising,” Christine LeClair, co-facilitator of the county’s homelessness task force, said of the report’s finding. “That’s the reality of it. These people are the working poor.”

The task force was formed in April after LeClair helped Yvonne — a disabled woman who was found living in the Carbon Plaza Mall — find stable housing in Lansford. Yvonne’s story pushed the county’s lack of resources for people experiencing homelessness, and homeless single women in particular, into public view.

The report

The federal poverty level is currently $26,000 for a family of four.

Using data from the 2017 Point-in-Time count (an annual survey of homeless individuals by county mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) the 2019 ALICE report pinpoints Carbon County’s median household income at just under $50,000. That’s $10,000 below the state average.

Of the 26,000 households in Carbon, 32% are categorized under ALICE; their income is above the poverty level but below the basic cost of living. That figure does not including the 11% of households living in poverty.

LeClair — who also acts as president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society — said families served by the organization are often employed. But come the end of the month, they find themselves on the phone with the society’s pantry, asking for food assistance or help with covering prescriptions or utility bills.

That leaves little to no financial room for saving for emergencies, LeClair noted. “We have so many individuals who are really living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

According to the report, a household would have to bring in $5,510 a month to support a family of four in Carbon. That covers expenses like housing (estimated to cost $1,038 a month), child care ($1,360) and food ($604).

To afford the county’s basic household survival budget, that family would need an income of $66,120 a year — not including savings for emergencies or future plans, like college.

A single adult would need to earn $1,840 a month — or $22,080 a year to live in Carbon.

Family Promise

Krista Brown-Ly, of Family Promise of Carbon County, recently moved back to the area from North Hollywood, California, where she worked with homeless youth at a behavioral health agency. She took over as executive director of the organization in May.

And what is one of the biggest surprises she’s encountered since coming back? Brown-Ly says it’s the number of families in the area who are food insecure.

“Many families that I’ve spoken to are kind of at their wits’ end,” she said. “They’re frustrated, and they need help.”

In 2018, Family Promise of Carbon County took in 14 families. Half of the participants who entered the program were already employed. But having a job is just the first step toward self-sustainability.

Seeing as Carbon offers very limited public transportation, residents’ means of getting to work are narrow. That is, unless you have a car — a high expense in its own right. For people who can get a job but can’t afford a car, stable employment may not be as easy to come by as some may think. And then there’s the issue of childcare.

“It’s cyclical,” Brown-Ly said. “This county doesn’t have anything for the residents to be able to become self-sufficient.”

It seems like solving the problem is just as complicated and involved as the issue itself. It can’t be boiled down to low wages and lack of public transportation, Brown-Ly said, although both play a large role in one’s financial situation.

But Brown-Ly said she hopes that “maybe the numbers in black and white will help people to understand what’s happening in our county.”

“To me, there’s not enough resources,” she said. “I really think that we’re all trying to do the best that we can, but I don’t think that there’s a firm understanding of the problem.”