Report Indicates Nearly One-Third Of Worcester Households Struggling Financially

SALISBURY – Approximately 31 percent of households in Worcester County are struggling to afford basic needs, according to a recent United Way report on Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) individuals. But statistics show these percentages are higher in half of the county’s municipalities identified in the data.

In a snapshot of six municipalities – Berlin, West Ocean City, Ocean City, Ocean Pines, Snow Hill and Pocomoke – a larger proportion of households in three of the aforementioned towns – Pocomoke, Snow Hill and Berlin – suffer from some sort of financial instability.

Approximately 56 percent of Pocomoke’s 1,484 households, 47 percent of Snow Hill’s 912 households, and 35 percent of Berlin’s 1,635 households are living below the ALICE threshold – with incomes either below the cost of living or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

Pam Gregory, community impact director for United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore (one of nine United Way partners of the report), said many factors account for the high percentage of working households within the county struggling to afford basic necessities – housing, food, transportation, childcare, healthcare, taxes and other miscellaneous costs.

According to 2014 data from the report, a single adult in Worcester County must have an annual budget of $19,044 to afford basic necessities in Maryland. This budget increases to $51,024 for a family of four.

Gregory said many individuals classified as ALICE (with incomes above the poverty threshold but below the cost of living) work more than one job for a “bare bones” budget, but face barriers that prevent them from getting ahead.

She added that antiquated federal poverty thresholds and limited access to transportation and affordable housing and childcare are key issues on the Lower Eastern Shore.

“Our partners know and see that these folks need help, but they make more than the poverty level, so they don’t qualify for certain services,” she said.

Gregory said the results of the report determine what programs, new and existing, are needed to help ALICE individuals.

“The data isn’t doing any good in somebody’s drawer,” Gregory said. “It needs to be a working document for the community to use. The report doesn’t give us solutions. It gives us the ability to address the situations.”

Currently, organizations across the Eastern Shore partner with the local United Way to accommodate the needs of ALICE households.

Steve Taylor, executive director for Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services, said a majority of ALICE individuals who reach out to the nonprofit are looking for some sort of housing assistance.

“We have a number of clients that need assistance related to utility bills and rent assistance,” he said. “We have been serving this clientele because we don’t have that limitation that other programs do.”

He added that the organization assists many individuals from Pocomoke, who forgo accessible transportation to their seasonal jobs in Ocean City for cheaper rent.

“People that work in Ocean City do live in Pocomoke because it is less expensive to live there,” he said, explaining that it could be a reason why percentages of households living below the ALICE threshold are so high in that area.

Although many organizations throughout the county provide food and clothing for ALICE individuals, Taylor said many households do not know where to turn for housing and utility assistance.

“The ALICE report is enlightening because we didn’t realize the extent of poverty within the community,” Taylor said. “These folks are one failed payment away from poverty. So it brings much needed attention to the issue.”

Combined, more than 40 percent of households on the Lower Eastern Shore live at or below the ALICE threshold (including those at or below the FPL), according to Gregory.

In Wicomico and Somerset counties, 35 and 53 percent of households live below the ALICE threshold.

“Somerset is No. 1 in the state, and Dorchester (County) is pretty close” Gregory said.

The local United Way serves four counties on the Lower Eastern Shore – Worcester, Wicomico, Somerset and Dorchester – and funds programs that provide resources for education, health and financial stability.

“This report brings to light the many challenges ALICE faces, gives a face to our neighbors in need, and underscores the need for the development and expansion of health and human services and the policies that support them,” Gregory said.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.