Alice in Wonderland

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” [1]  This proclamation by the Queen of Hearts to Alice neatly sums up the plight of 27.5% of the households in New Jersey as documented in a 2014 report by the United Way of Northern NJ.[2]  This is a report about ALICE, not Lewis Carroll’s Alice, but the “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” people in our society.  These are individuals or households that, although employed, cannot afford basic household necessities, as defined by United Way, of housing, childcare, transportation and health care.  While many in this group are earning more than the official National Poverty Level, they are at or below the survival level for New Jersey.  

ALICE cuts across the lines of ethnicity, marriage, gender and race.  The “trickle down” economic Conservatives will jump to the assumption that this group is predominately composed of minorities.  The Conservatives are like the White Queen who said “Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” [3]  In reality, the great majority of ALICE households, 71%, are white.  The proportion of ALICE households in these four categories correlates well with the population as a whole.  If you include education, however, it becomes obvious that this is a driving factor.  Let us look at two cases, a single adult and a family with 2 parents, an infant and a preschooler.  This study indicates that the ALICE threshold for the single adult is approximately $27,552 annually and $61,200 for the family.   The data shows that a male with a high school education will make $39,082, OK if he is single but woefully inadequate for a family.  That same male would need a Bachelor’s Degree, $72,085, to sustain this family.  Due to pay disparities, a single woman would need some college or an associate’s degree to make $32,968.  If she were trying to support this family solo, she would need a graduate degree to make $66,194.

In a culture of “The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours” 1 income inequality, ALICE households have a nearly impossible task to improve their situation.  While a higher minimum wage is touted as a solution, it would need to be well over $13 / hr just to remain in ALICE.  This would help the very poor but perpetuate ALICE.    One path to sustained improvement is a better job, but these individuals are constrained by lack of education and a lack of resources to get an education, a cost that continues to rise.  As a society, we are obligated to provide a safety net for those amongst us who cannot work.  For the others, an opportunity for education without enthralling themselves to indentured servitude to payback astronomical student loans.

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

[3] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

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