Who are the working poor?

Sep 3, 2019

Being poor is expensive. A 2016 United Way report found 26% of families in Erie County earned income above the federal poverty level, yet could not afford basic necessities to survive.

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

They aren’t destitute and, maybe because they’re not, their plight goes unnoticed. They are Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, or A.L.I.C.E.

The same report also showed 60% of families in the City of Buffalo faced financial hardship. Michael Weiner, president and CEO of United Way Buffalo and Erie County, said when discussions are made about eliminating poverty, the A.L.I.C.E. population is left out of the conversation.

“How often as a community do we talk about families that are going to work every day, living paycheck-to-paycheck, taking care of their families?,” he said. “Attempting to navigate this complex system that we have of services and supports, but struggling around self-sufficiency?”

Raising the minimum wage or having more jobs that pay better in Western New York could be a start. With the majority of jobs in the region paying under $20 an hour, it’s not surprising many families struggle to afford basic necessities.

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Jeff and Tiffany Domros live in a quaint South Buffalo neighborhood which borders Cazenovia Park. Jeff works as a maintenance technician and Tiffany is a stay-at-home mother. They have 10 kids, five of whom still live in the two-story house they have lived in for the past 31 years.

Despite owning their home, with only one avenue of income and five children in the house, including one with special needs, Tiffany Domros said times have been tough for the family.

“Usually most of your bills are due the first two weeks of the month,” she said. “So usually if there’s any extra for school supplies, for clothes the kids might need, it’s going to technically fall into the third week because with all the bills being due around the same time to budget it, only leaves you so much.”

Domros said bills are paid in order of importance. Since they own their home, home equity, gas, water and electricity bills come first. But there are still many more bills which need to be paid. She said even if she were to get a job, the money would be going towards childcare services.

At several points over the years Jeff was unemployed. Requiring unemployment benefits, his pay was cut in half. This lead to more bill juggling and eventual credit card debt. When Jeff finally found steady work, he said some of his money was garnished to pay off the debt.

“So for almost two years they took 10% of my check,” he said

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Not being able to afford basic necessities like food, the Domros began going to the Food Bank of Western New York, now called FeedMore Western New York. Catherine Shick, Feed More’s Director of Communications, said for people living at or just above the poverty line, one setback can have a snowball effect on their finances.

“It is that one unexpected crisis, whether that’s a medical crisis, whether that’s a sudden loss of a job, or a layoff at a job,” she said. “It’s really takes only one unexpected crisis to be in need of food assistance.”

Every other week the Domros family would pick up from the food bank. With seven people living in the house, plus a few pets, that can be quite the haul. Food banks like FeedMore rely heavily on donations of food and money.

Tiffany Domros said learning to be frugal throughout the years has helped the family navigate their precarious financial situation.

“Things are looking up because the steady income. So I adjusted so everything is paid,” she said. “And if there’s extra then the lowest bill gets paid. And that is the only way to climb up and out to get stable.”

The Domros’ story could mirror the stories of families living on the north, west and east sides of the city. Poverty does not discriminate.

In order get working poor families their needed services, Weiner reiterates the point about needing to put a larger spotlight on families like the Domros, but cautions there isn’t a magic elixir to solve these problems all at once.

“I think that there is something to say about what is an acceptable working wage to help families so that they can manage their basic needs,” he said. “Including housing, and child care, and transportation, and health care and food, and all of those things. And there’s no easy answer for that.”