The Arkansas Asset Sponsors Network hosted the “ALICE Champions Politics Talk” Tuesday to discuss three issues Arkansans are facing today: housing, childcare, and medical debt.
Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed in Arkansas or ALICE was launched last year by the Arkansas Asset Sponsors Network to support upward mobility and minimize barriers for Arkansas at-risk groups and working households; it is part of United ALICE, a national non-profit organization.
“Over the past few years, especially because of covid, the impact on low income families…families on these issues of housing, medical debt, childcare, just day to day expenses, these issues are really affecting these families now and we have to do something,” said Audra Butler, regional director of rural housing for Communities Unlimited in Arkansas.
“This puts these families in very difficult situations when they choose between paying off their medical debt, paying off their mortgage or rent, or cutting back on medications.”
According to Arkansas’ profile on the United ALICE website, between 2007 and 2018, unemployment in Arkansas and across the U.S. fell to historic lows, the economy grew, and wages rose slightly; however, in 2018, 46% of Arkansas households were barely making ends meet.
While 17% of Arkansas households lived below the federal poverty line, another 29% were ALICE households earning above the poverty line but not well off to afford basic living expenses.
According to the 2019 Arkansas Financial Hardship Survey, 41% of families were ALICE households in 2017, and the number of families in Arkansas that could not afford basic needs grew by 20% between 2007 and 2017.
Butler said affordable housing and aging housing are top issues in Arkansas today.
Affordable housing must cost around 30% or less of the gross household income. This includes utilities, mortgages, rent and home maintenance, Butler said.
“It’s going to be the biggest expense most people have,” Butler said, adding that many ALICE families pay 40% to 70% of a family’s income for housing, while many low-income families in Arkansas are facing pressure. same problem.
Butler said Arkansas still needs a more centralized place for affordable housing advocates, vendors, stakeholders and other non-governmental groups to work together and share such resources; she said the state legislature should also have a committee on housing initiatives.
Childcare is another issue facing Arkansas families.
An ALICE family with an infant and a preschool child in Arkansas has an annual budget of approximately $46,000, and childcare can cost a family one-third to one-half of the budget, said Angela Durand, chief executive of Excel by Eight.
Existing resources meet the needs of only about half of families needing childcare assistance in Arkansas, Duran said.
Factors such as inflation and higher wages in lower-level positions are impacting the ability of child care providers to hire staff with sufficient education, training and experience in early childhood education, Duran said.
“It’s interesting that the number of day care centers in Arkansas hasn’t really gone down like it has in other states,” Duran said.
Childcare and early childhood are discussed in the current state legislative session.
While there have been major efforts in recent years to bring attention to medical debt at the federal level, that doesn’t mean a major systemic overhaul is on the horizon, said Craig Wilson, director of health policy at the Arkansas Center for Better Health.
“I don’t foresee drastic changes in the next 10 years, so looking for some protection in the short term will be the most viable path,” Wilson said. “Part of the problem is that health care has become more costly, especially for employers,” Wilson said.