It is generally agreed that the federal poverty level is outdated, so a number of other standard-of-living measurements have come into use to help provide a more well-rounded picture of financial hardship across America. The United Way's ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Project says the latest picture of New York State is "startling."
"I think we live in a country where people believe if you work hard you should be able to support your family, but that's not always the case in all parts of New York and Buffalo," said Stephanie Hoops, Director and Lead Researcher for the ALICE Project.
ALICE is a relatively new measure of those who work hard - often at more than one job at a time - but still struggle to make afford basic necessities. The research initiative started as a pilot project in Morris County, NJ in 2009, spread to the entire state in 2012 and has since grown to include 450 United Ways in 15 states across the country. The name was chosen to put a human face on the research.
"We look at what it costs to live in each county, do a budget and then see how many people having come below that," Hoops explained. "What we found in Erie County was kinda the well known 15 percent of households in poverty, but we found another 26 percent were ALICE - so earning above the federal poverty level, but below that basic, what we call, the household survival budget."
So the numbers for 2014 - the latest for which they are available - are high, Hoops said. The reason? The type of job opportunities available locally.
"One of the disconcerting things that we found is that 64 percent of jobs in the Buffalo metro area pay less than $20 an hour and most of those jobs actually pay between $10 and $15 an hour," she said. "So, let's say a $15-an-hour job equates to $30,000 a year, but we know a lot of those jobs $1 or $15-an-hour jobs are not full-time jobs. They're actually seasonal or part-time, so you're not necessarily earning $30,000 with that kind of job."
Hoops says any efforts to lower the cost of living will help. What about the efforts to raise the minimum wage?
"Minimum wage is a part of the solution, but it's not the only thing," she said. "If you just pick a random number and say that's it, it doesn't address all the family household types and all the range of the challenges these families face, so we know the solution is going to be more complex than that."
Hoops said the high cost of housing and child care need particular attention locally, but food, health care and transportation costs also continue to rise. She said everyone in the community should be concerned about the problem and hoped the research is used as one of many perspectives to find solutions to financial hardship.