Climbing back up the cliff
This next section calls for careful reading, because we’re trying to answer a complicated question: How much does it really take to survive?
The United Way has created one answer: an index called the “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” or ALICE. It measures how much families like the Collinses need to be economically stable. In Bexar County, the 2016 ALICE index put survival for a family with two parents and two children in school at $46,752 per year, or just over $23/hour. If those children are too young to be in school, it jumps to $59,952.
The catch for the Collinses was housing. The least expensive house they could find near school and work was $1,200 per month. The ALICE index allows for $929 per month in rent, which is getting increasingly difficult to find as San Antonio housing prices soar. The Collins’ income qualifies them for some housing assistance through the San Antonio Housing Authority, but demand for affordable housing is high, and families with a history of evictions and missed rent checks are at a disadvantage.
The lowest wage for a household with a child on the ALICE stability index is $30 per hour—that’s for a single parent with one child in school. The minimum wage in Texas is $7.25 per hour.
Expecting families to go from minimum wage to $30 per hour in one jump is unrealistic, Legacy said. For wage workers, that jump usually takes years. It’s not really a jump, either. It’s more like a climb. A free solo without harness or belay, relying on your fingertips to maintain your ascent.
The ALICE index calculates two income levels: survival (as described above), and economic stability. Surviving means getting by without emergencies or surprise costs. Economic stability allows families to weather illness, car repairs, and other large unforseen costs. To be economically stable in Bexar County, the ALICE index estimates that their family would need $87,372 per year. The family with two young kids would need $101,124 per year.
The climb from welfare to economic stability is precipitous and treacherous, full of impossible choices.
Last December, the Collins family was in survival mode—hoping they could keep climbing up that cliff, and that no more surprises were coming.