People Are Still Struggling To Get By, Especially In Ansonia And Derby

You’re putting off the roof repairs, hoping for a good check come tax return time.

The mechanic says your car needs a timing belt, but you’re still paying the credit card bill from the brake jobs over the summer for you and your wife.

Christmas is here, but your gift list is being choked to death by the letters from the hospital asking for the co-pay on the trip your little one took to the emergency room a few months back.

Your credit cards are maxed.

And while your income has flat-lined, your town’s tax bills grow every July like the creeping crud.

You’re not alone.

In fact, you’re just one of 332,817 households in Connecticut — 25 percent — struggling to pay for necessities such as housing, health care and food. Meanwhile, your salary doesn’t keep up with the cost of living.

And that 25 percent doesn’t include the 10 percent of the state living below the poverty line.

Generally, your demographic has been called the “working poor.” But it’s also been referred to as the “lower middle class,” “working class,” or maybe the “disappearing middle class.”

But now the United Way has a new term to describe you and your family: “ALICE.”

Asset limited.

Income constrained.

Employed.

In Ansonia, when combined with those living below the poverty line, you’re 50 percent of the households in the city.

In Derby, you’re the 42 percent.

In Seymour, you’re the 29 percent.

In Shelton, you’re the 22 percent.

In Oxford, you’re the 13 percent.

If you’re reading this right now thinking “mooches on public assistance,” think again. The “ALICE” demographic is employed, so throw out the stereotype.

ALICE households pretty much represent society as a whole. It’s not just one small group ‘over there’ representing ALICE, it’s our kids, our parents, it’s us sometimes,” said Stephanie Hoopes Halpin, a Rutgers University professor who authored the United Way’s 129-page “ALICE” report.

The Report

The report for Connecticut was released last month. It shows that many families are struggling in the state, and in the lower Naugatuck Valley — and, most specifically, in Ansonia and Derby.

Click here to download a copy.

Merle Berke-Schlessel is the president and CEO of the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County. It covers an area that includes great wealth — and great need — stretching from Bridgeport to Norwalk and the surrounding Fairfield County suburbs.

The United Way has a dizzying array of services to help people in Connecticut, especially for people living below the poverty line. But, in recent years, Berke-Schlessel said, the United Way noticed more people were clamoring for services.

A need for fresh data became apparent. “ALICE” was born.

“As of a few years ago we began seeing, and it was all anecdotal data, a rush on our various food pantries. A rush for services that would help people with rent payments and mortgage payments to keep people out of foreclosure and eviction,” she said. “Now, with this study, we can really understand what we’re doing. The data is no longer anecdotal. It’s real and it is in front of us.”

The “ALICE” report attempts to establish what a family of four or an individual needs to earn to pay for necessities such as housing, child care, health care, transportation and taxes.

The report notes that measuring financial stability by using the federal poverty level is useless, since the dollar amount is so low and out of date.

The “ALICE” estimates are “bare bones,” according to the report, and provide no room for savings.

In the Valley (defined by the United Way as Ansonia, Derby, Oxford, Seymour and Shelton):

  • A single person has to earn between $18,154 and $24,618 annually to pay for the basic necessities.
  • A family of four (mom, dad, a toddler and an infant) needs to earn between $59,654 and $66,088 to survive.

The “ALICE” report shows that many families in the Valley are economically vulnerable — especially in Ansonia and Derby — despite parents working full-time jobs.

Here’s a factoid that sheds light on how fragile the economy is within Derby and Ansonia:

In Ansonia, 46 percent of households give more than 30 percent of their income toward the mortgage every year. About 56 percent of the renters in Ansonia give more than 30 percent of their annual income to the landlord.

Keep in mind that 35 percent of income going toward housing is considered an “extreme housing burden,” according to economists.

In Derby, 42 percent of homeowners see more than 30 percent of their annual salary go toward the mortgage. Renters — 51 percent.

Part of the problem, according to the ALICE report, is that while the cost of living in Connecticut has increased 13 percent, ALICE families still haven’t recovered from the recession that pummeled the U.S. in 2007 and 2008.

ALICE in the Valley

Meanwhile, higher-wage jobs that disappeared from places such as Ansonia and Derby have been replaced with lower-paying jobs that strain residents’ resources.

And since the pay at retail jobs that replaced factory work doesn’t cut it, “ALICE” workers seem to be traveling farther for better-paying jobs. But then they’re spending more on transportation.

Going forward, those low-paying jobs — retail sales, food prep, home care aides — are projected to grow three times faster than higher-paying jobs in Connecticut.

Living paycheck to paycheck means “ALICE” families are faced with decisions such as the ones listed at the top of this story. It means a person may choose between groceries or a wellness trip to the doctor.

“There are all kinds of strategies to get by, from living in substandard housing to living far away from your job, to not eating healthy food to foregoing preventative health care,” Halpin, the report’s author, said.

Meanwhile . . .

The type of struggle detailed in the ALICE report is mirrored in another report issued last month by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Ansonia and Derby are ranked the sixth and seventh most distressed municipalities in the state, according to the 2014 list from the state Department of Economic Development. There are 25 communities on the list. Naugatuck is ranked eighth.

The CCM report shows Ansonia and Derby had higher high school dropout rates (3.7 and 3.3 percent) than the state average of 2.1 percent.

Derby’s crime rate per 100,000 people ranks ninth on the distressed municipality list. Ansonia’s clocks in at 12 out of 25 towns.

The CCM report concludes that more state aid is needed to help places such as Ansonia and Derby.

“The state has a moral and economic imperative to provide increased assistance to these towns and cities,” the report states. “The future of our state depends on it. As go these communities, so goes Connecticut.”

Click here to read the CCM report.

Reaction

While many of the facts and figures in the “ALICE” report and the policy report from CCM are bleak, the data is important for local government, according to Sheila O’Malley, Ansonia’s grant writer and director of economic development.

Ansonia’s future economic development lies within the vast stretches of woefully under-utilized former factories along Main Street and the Naugatuck River.

Those properties stand little chance of being born again without the help of state and federal cash.

The data from a report such as “ALICE” helps the city provide concrete information when competing against other communities for government grant money.

“I use statistical data as leverage to secure funding,” O’Malley said in an email. “(The data) shouldn’t define us, but it helps to make the case for badly needed state and federal funding.”

John Marini, a former Ansonia Alderman and current corporation counsel, said the data confirms what Mayor David Cassetti successfully campaigned on in 2013: Ansonia residents need tax relief.

“This reality has guided the Mayor’s approach from the beginning, including an aggressive focus on economic development to increase the tax base and an overhaul of the budget with the aim of gradually reducing the tax rate. The truth is that residents have been overtaxed for years,” Marini said in an e-mail, referring to a city budget with an 18 percent fund balance instead of the standard 10 percent.

“We also recognize that there are other goals beyond tax relief. The administration is focused on making residents lives better by partnering with public entities such as the Workplace to provide job skills and TEAM to provide day care,” Marini said. “We are looking forward to enhance the effectiveness of our grants programs to make investments into infrastructure.”

Jack Walsh, president and chief operating officer of the Valley United Way, said the “ALICE” report paints a clearer picture of the Valley with useful data.

“The study is meant to get people thinking about the difficulties people face in today’s economy and to start discussing how we might collectively make things better,” Walsh said in an email. “The stats are what they are, and I think the survival budget gives a clearer picture of what it really takes to live a decent life in Connecticut. Until now, the focus has been on the poverty stats, and those numbers are impossibly low and people think that anyone above those levels is OK — and they are not.”

At the same time, the statistics show there are fewer “ALICE” households as a whole in the lower Naugatuck Valley than the state average.

Moving Forward

The “ALICE” report doesn’t provide answers as to how the cost of living can be reined in, or how to convince retail companies to pay their local employees more money.

Instead, it offers data that will start a discussion, United Way officials said.

To that end, the “ALICE” report has been covered extensively in the media in recent weeks.

Last week, Richard J. Porth, president and CEO of the United Way of Connecticut, talked about the report with the Valley Council for Health & Human Services in Derby.

“With this report we tried to learn more about why ALICE families continue to struggle even though they are working, and how that affects their lives and the choices and options in life, and their ability to get ahead, their ability to pursue the American dream,” Porth told the Valley Indy in a previous interview.

Sharon Closius is the president and CEO of the Valley Community Foundation, a Derby-based organization that supports an array of organizations in the lower Naugatuck Valley, and matches donors to area nonprofits. Click here to learn more about the VCF.

The data will help nonprofit agencies tailor programs, Closius said in an email.

“This report arms everyone in the Valley community with knowledge specific to those living below the cost-of-living threshold. The data will assist nonprofits to develop their programs accordingly,” she said. “As a result, the Valley Community Foundation will receive more targeted grant requests and allow us to strategically provide funding for this specific group which represents 30 percent of our population (this includes households at or below poverty level).”

Comment

posted by: Philip Tripp on December 13, 2014  8:29am

Excellent article! Ansonia city government is working hard to decrease the tax burden on city residents. However, economic policy out of Hartford with increased taxes and regulations on business are not helping!