A recent study says an average 44% of income-earning households on the Boothbay peninsula struggle to afford the cost of living. The report, the first of its kind from United Ways of Maine, spotlights challenges for residents who earn more than the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford the basics of where they live.
Released in October, ALICE in Maine: A Study of Financial Hardship refers to people who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed (ALICE). As rising inflation flattens out even the rapid wage growth in Maine over the past two years, according to the Maine State Economist, the demographic is becoming increasingly relevant.
“The ALICE in Maine study reinforces what we all have known, unfortunately, that many of us live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to survive and thrive,” said Nicole Evans, executive director of United Way of Mid Coast Maine.
The study is based on 2021 income and expenses for full-time Maine residents, and it uses data from sources including the U.S. Census and Federal Reserve Board. It compares income with the cost of living such as housing, utilities, childcare, food, transportation and other standard expenses. It dives as low as the county level, which it says is the smallest jurisdiction for which there is consistently reliable data.
Overall, the report shows many people walk a fine line between financial security and survival, especially as support networks provided during COVID disappear. According to United Way, 30% of Maine households fall under the ALICE category, compared to 33% for Lincoln County. The study says 51% of households are below the ALICE threshold in Boothbay, 45% in Boothbay Harbor, 44% in Southport and 35% in Edgecomb.
These numbers exceed the official poverty level set by the federal government, according to United Way. The report shows there are 172,502 households under ALICE in Maine, more than twice the 70,983 (12%) of households in poverty; in Lincoln County, 1,845 (12%) of households are in poverty.
According to United Way officials, federal poverty statistics can be outdated and do not adequately match the financial situations for many families. Evans said they do not tell the full story of a community's need, and ALICE can help shine light on the daily struggles for many households. One example: the study reports average annual income needed to survive in Maine ranged from $63,000 to $81,000 for a family of four, which is two to three times the official U.S. poverty level.
“Those who are in this category of ALICE are one paycheck away, one emergency away from falling into poverty,” Evans said. "In addition to not being able to afford their basic needs, one accident can put them in an even tougher place than they're already ...”
Who in Lincoln County is most at risk when it comes to ALICE? The study says 72% of single female parents and 62% of single male parents are below the ALICE threshold. In addition, 46% of single or cohabitating households with no children are below the threshold while that number is 19% for married households with children.
“Those are all the high-risk groups that we have had conversations about ... and we know how much support we need to provide to those households,” Evans said. “But this (report) shines a light on what we need to do …"
Among the two largest single ethnic groups in Lincoln County, Hispanic and White, the study says both had 36% of households below ALICE. However, it reports 29% of Hispanic households were below poverty levels while that number was 9% for White households.
Age is more correlated, with 65% of people under 25, and 48% of those over 65, below the threshold in the county. In comparison, around 42% of people ages 25-64 are below the threshold. Evans said this is most likely due to where people are at in their career levels, with younger people at lower paying jobs working their way up the career ladder. For older residents, she said limited fixed incomes and rising cost of healthcare are likely connected.
Career plays a role across Maine, including in industries that support a seasonal tourist economy. The report says 34% (17,820) of the state's retail sales workers live below the ALICE threshold. In Maine's restaurant industry, 63% (8,410) of cooks, 37% (6,940) of food preparation workers and 29% (7,330) waitstaff were reported under ALICE.
Parts of the study suggest the cost of living is even more taxing than figures show. The study references a $729 household monthly rent for two adults and two children, a bargain for the Boothbay peninsula for those even able to find housing. At the time of this article’s publication, three year-round rentals in the region were listed on Craigslist.com, ranging from $1,200 to $2,000 a month. Evans, a former Boothbay Harbor resident, said the organization is aware of the issue and is working to improve data in the future.
Evans said this is the first year of the report and she hopes it will be the foundation for more to come. She said around half of other states in the country have adopted ALICE, and the inaugural report now allows people to compare the cost of life in Maine with others across the nation.
“We haven't been able to tell the story of those who are living above poverty and the struggle that we all have in terms of data,” she said. “And this way, we have some measures and common language around what we're looking at in terms of an average household budget.”
Evans hopes the report will be used as a tool to quantify and discuss the challenges around financial hardship. She said it is a resource for municipalities, schools, legislators and other groups to underscore the work they have been doing for years to help their communities. For individuals, she said it is a tool to help make connections.
“It's wonderful to have the context as a community to understand who is here and what we can do to help each other,” Evans said. “And then to have the insight as individuals and as households to know that we're not alone and help us feel empowered and inspired to not only get connected to the resources that we need, but then help each other ...”
The ALICE in Maine report was released by United Ways of Maine in partnership with United For ALICE, funded in part by the John T. Gorman Foundation.