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Have You Met Alice?

By John B. Franklin, CEO of United Way of Northern New Jersey

Some years ago, as the Executive Director of the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown, New Jersey, I spent my days getting to know many who had hit rock-bottom. I gained great sympathy for these individuals who were homeless and destitute. The more I got to know them, the more I learned.  The majority were locals, many of whom had surprising histories of good jobs, good educations, and good families.  Somehow life had conspired against them. I often wondered what had brought them to this very low point in their lives.  Obviously, there are many answers to that question, which are as complex and diverse as the people themselves.

When I came to United Way 15 years ago, much of our work was focused on helping those who had hit bottom.  Was there a better way?  Could we help these individuals regain their footing before they slipped over the edge? Could we prevent people from losing the means to survive and thrive?

We started the ALICE Project nearly five years ago to add greater depth to our understanding of the people in our community who live each day one crisis away from falling into poverty.  These families make more than the official poverty level, but way less than an individual or family needs to sustain a reasonably healthy standard of living. What we learned has been surprising to everyone.  Just two statistics from the ALICE Report capture the essence of our findings: 30 percent of the people in New Jersey live in households earning too little to provide the basic necessities, and more than half the jobs pay less than $20 an hour – most of those far less.

ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It’s the employed part of that acronym that I want to emphasize. ALICE represents those among us who are working yet falling behind. The conditions that keep ALICE in this downward spiral are the focus of United Way. We believe everyone deserves opportunities to have a good life: a quality education that leads to a stable job, enough income for a family to be financially stable, and good health.

ALICE is someone you meet everyday. She/he is someone you depend on to care for your kids, fix your car, and tend to your elderly relative. Despite working, often at more than one job, ALICE earns far too little for a sustainable lifestyle. No matter how hard these individuals work, they’re not going to make it and their kids, your neighbors, and our community will pay the price in the long run.

ALICE is helping our United Way create a conversation about the need for long-lasting changes. By shedding light on ALICE, we are better able to develop successful approaches that address the underlying causes of our community’s problems, ultimately giving us the opportunity to have greater impact.

I love living in New Jersey. When one drives around the state it is hard not to notice the beautiful tree-lined streets, lovely homes, nice cars, and great shopping. These are all signs of the affluence that surrounds us, but look a little closer, scratch the surface and get a deeper glance, you will find ALICE. Personally, I feel very committed to helping ALICE; for one reason I know that her fate and mine are intertwined, but at a more fundamental level I know how hard it is to grow up in an ALICE family.  I have personally felt the pain of these struggles; I think you will too. I invite you to read the Report, available here.