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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

More Florida and Tampa Bay families are living paycheck to paycheck

A female in a green shirt plays with a young child sitting on the ground.
Courtesy of United Way Suncoast
In the greater Tampa Bay region, United Way Suncoast found that the average annual cost of childcare of a toddler exceeded that of tuition for a University of South Florida student.

A report released on April 26 by United Way Suncoast sheds light on how these households fared during the pandemic — and which ones suffered the most.

More households in the greater Tampa Bay region areliving one emergency awayfrom poverty, according to thelatest report by United Way Suncoast.

This group — called ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) — struggle to afford basic necessities, like housing and healthcare, despite falling above the federal poverty line.

Doug Griesenauer speaks to community leaders in Hillsborough County about the housing crisis.
Courtesy of United Way Healthcare
Doug Griesenauer speaks to community leaders in Hillsborough County about the housing crisis.

Experts say ALICE households are particularly vulnerable because they typically earn too much to qualify for public assistance.

READ MORE: A rising number of working Florida families are unable to afford basic necessities

Data released on April 26 sheds light on how these households fared during the pandemic — and which ones suffered the most.

WUSF's Gabriella Paul spoke with Doug Griesenauer, VP of community impact at United Way Suncoast, about what this means for Florida households struggling to get by:

Doug, could you begin by walking us through what ALICE stands for?

Essentially, outside of the acronym, it's an understanding of how much it costs in our community to get by.

Obviously, a lot of people say, 'Well, we already have one of those tools, right? It's the federal poverty line.' But, it's not necessarily the strongest tool.

So, for those who may not know the federal poverty line has historically missed a pretty large group of the community. Could you just talk a little bit more about that group and how this tool really helps capture [them]?

Yeah, so the federal poverty line actually has a really interesting history. It was created by a ... researcher by the name of Dr. Mollie Orshansky ... And she took the low cost of a basket of goods back in the 1950s ... she took that cost, multiplied it by three, [and] called it the federal poverty line. And that's the federal poverty line we use today in 2023, adjusted for inflation, of course.

That's why a lot of our federal tools are at 150 [percent], 185 percent of the federal poverty line — but even doing multipliers on that you can't get to the granular nature of: What does it cost to get by in Tampa? What does it cost to get by in St. Pete? And, so, that's where the ALICE threshold comes in.

Today, we're here talking about the most recent report, which was the COVID and Financial Hardship in Florida report. And for a lot of ALICE households, this was one of the first times that they qualified for public assistance. Is that right?

That is correct, yeah.

A lot of these benefits that came out were individuals who didn't necessarily always qualify. And that really is that ALICE population we're talking about. Again, when we're talking about the federal poverty line, there's a lot of individuals that qualify for assistance, but those assistances drop off as you start making more money. It's something we call the "cliff effect."

Now that all of these [COVID] relief programs have sunsetted up until the last months of 2022 — what does that mean for ALICE households in Florida, and in Tampa?

So, that's actually something that we at United Way Suncoast are talking about a lot. And the conversations that we have are really this understanding that a lot of these pandemic era benefits are gone, but the pandemic era problems are still persisting for a lot of families in our communities.

So, we talked a little bit about this "fiscal cliff" of relief programs that no longer can be expected in family or household budgets. I was hoping we could move to just exactly who these families are.

Yeah, well, when we break it down, you know, about one out of every nine or 10 registered nurses are below that ALICE threshold are struggling. Even worse, one out of every six elementary or middle school teachers are struggling. And this is the one that I find most jarring is that more than half of all childcare workers in our communities are struggling.

Right, I think the big takeaway from this particular ALICE report is that more than ever before, those falling in that category are your neighbors.

And I'll tell you, when we looked at the numbers, it said that about 45 percent of all of Floridians are at the ALICE threshold, or below.

And that number is exactly the same for United Way's five-county area, which is here in Hillsborough, but also Pinellas County, Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto [counties] -- still 45 percent, which is surprisingly close to half.

But we also know that there are groups that are disproportionately falling within this threshold.

Definitely. So, when you look at age demographics, interestingly enough, the household that always struggles the most are households where the head of household is under 25. But we found what's very interesting with this data is the opposite side of the spectrum for older adults, especially those over 65, also are definitely struggling ...

When you break it down by race, unfortunately, we know that Black and Hispanic households are much more likely to be in poverty. They're also much more likely to be in ALICE thresholds. When we look at this, we also are looking at it through the lens of the pandemic and we know that a lot of pandemic era relief benefits that came through, didn't necessarily serve everyone equitably ...

And the last one is actually household type — what we find is single-parent households are disproportionately more likely to be in ALICE. But what I did find really interesting was the fact that when you look at single-parent households, I believe it's about 35 percent of all households with children are single-parent households.

It sounds like there's a growing number of individuals and residents in the Tampa Bay region and in Florida that are falling through this crack. They're not qualifying for federal public assistance, but there's not wages to keep up with the climbing expenses that are not slowing. What gives?

We know that food gives first, right? You're gonna give up breakfast before you give up rent. You're also going to give up some healthcare costs before you give up rent. But eventually, you'll have to give up rent.

We know evictions have gone up -- even beyond pre-pandemic levels. We know that families are smart and resilient, and they're giving as much as they can. But sometimes you don't have enough to give.

When you're talking about there being 615,000 households below that ALICE threshold in our community, we need to find a solution for 615,000 households. And so that solution never comes from one entity. It's our nonprofit partners. It's our business partners. It's our local governments to come together ... to say, 'Let's all collectively do something about this.'

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.