Meet Alice

I have a friend who owns a major company, and I periodically receive his company newsletter. He’s a truly good person, philanthropic and civic-minded, so I was startled to read what was surely a throwaway line in the most recent newsletter, in which he wrote that his company had experienced a good year, despite the national administration’s policies favoring “lazy” Americans.

Shades of Mike Pence’s “ennobling” and Mitt Romney’s 47%!

These attitudes toward “the least of us” have long been an indelible part of American culture. When I was doing research for my book God and Country, I traced several ostensibly secular policy preferences back to their religious roots. In the case of poverty policies, I concluded that attitudes toward the poor (beginning with 15th Century English poor laws that forbid giving “alms to the sturdy beggar”) are rooted in a simplified Calvinism: worldly success signals God’s approval; poverty is evidence of moral defect. Originally doctrinal, these attitudes have been absorbed into the popular culture.

The problem is, this easy dismissal of struggling Americans is at odds with reality.

Recently, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it applies to households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report is eye-opening.

Here are some “highlights” (highlights being something of a misnomer here):

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

For families living on the edge, families struggling just to put that dinner on the table, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. So these families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse.

The United Way report (which is available online) is intended as an educational tool. Its data rebuts the thoughtless but ingrained caricature so skillfully deployed by President Ronald Reagan: that of the “welfare queen.” Built into that dismissive shorthand is the assumption that poor Americans “play the system,” refuse to work, and spend their days taking advantage of hard-working taxpayers.

A few such people undoubtedly exist, but so do the “captains of industry” who “play the system” by lobbying for subsidies and favorable tax treatment, and companies like Walmart that protect their hefty profits by using the taxpayer-provided safety net to supplement their payment of poverty wages.

Most businesses aren’t like Walmart; most owners are hardworking and honest, just as most Americans who fall below the Alice threshold are hardworking and honest.

As the Executive Director of the Jennings County Economic Development Commission wrote in the introduction to the report:

Alice is the family in Elkhart whose car breaks down, which takes the grocery money, which sends the family to the food pantry. Alice is the family in Terre Haute whose entire economic life comes undone when the breadwinner breaks a leg and loses three weeks wages. Alice is the family in Marion whose 11-year-old watches the 5-year-old because they can’t afford afterschool programs despite both parents working full-time.

Dismissing Alice as lazy is lazy thinking.


  1. Thank you, Sheila, for an excellent description of the majority of Americans who subsist on substandard income levels through no fault of their own. I was suddenly disabled at age 57 (20 years ago); there is no rehabilitation for my disability. When my father died, I inherited enough money to pay for my home which was in Florida at the time. I am still driving his 18 year old Pontiac Sunfire which sags, drags and leaks from more places than I do. I moved back to Indianapolis to be near family for assistance when my health failed even further. This was a huge financial mistake on my part yet I am well aware I am more fortunate than hundreds of thousands living on my income level which is barely above the federal poverty level. If I had to pay a monthly mortgage or rent; I couldn’t do it with my income. My trips to grocery shop leave me wondering each time how do people with families feed them at todays prices on basic food items plus non-food items which are necessities.

    Those of us at my income level and all of the ALICEs in this country are not the ones dragging down the economy; we are the ones supporting it as best we can. Those “captains of industy” steal from us daily, hide their income from taxation while we pay to support their lifestyles. I really don’t think I can ever forget that Mitt Romney received a $70,000 tax exemption for his wife’s dancing horse while people trying to survive on minimum wage income levels struggle to buy food AND medication and pay their taxes to cover that dancing horse exemption. I am sure the majority of Americans will sit at their Thanksgiving tables tomorrow and give sincere thanks for what they do have while the 1% will be figuring ways to increase their cups which runneth over with ill gotten gains and will throw out enough leftover food to feed dozens of families healthy meals. I give thanks for what I do have and will remember my two oldest sons, lost to cancer over the past three years, and be thankful for the time we did have together. I will also think of so many who will be in the cold and without food or family; not only on Thanksgiving but every day of their existance. The ALICEs are going to be the majority of Americans if the power structure in this country does not change – and change soon.

    My sincere wishes to all of you for a Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. I applaud your comments and wish they could be printed, spoken, nay, shouted from every corner of this lazy thinking country. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be beyond the ALICE stage should be mindful of our neighbors, lend a hand up, and do what we can to change the deplorable situation of ALICE-ism in this great land.

  3. Thanks for calling attention to our report. Many United Ways across Indiana will be convening local conversations to raise awareness about ALICE households in 2015. We approach this work with honor and dignity for all. For a quick link to data about your own county, township or city on the county pages at

  4. The mindset of the Great Oligarchy Plot is, of course, to serve up ALICE to the oligarchs as a sacrifice, in order to capture enough weak minds to enable the power grab. I’m reminded of the sacrificial ceremonies of the Mayans that allowed their religious aristocracy to lord over the workers who built their magnificent memorials that still stand.

    I had an exchange with a very conservative friend a while ago because he was whining about carrying 47% of the country. I said that while I feel your pain, as a member if the 47% (as was he), I really felt like decades of paying into SS and Medicare qualified us for some return on our investment. When he said he didn’t mean us I sent him a breakdown of the 47% of which those poorer than ALICE represent an extremely, but growing, thanks to the oligarchs in action, small percentage. Sure enough we were both in that portion.

    Of course the costs thus tabulated don’t include the costs of recovering from the consequences of climate change or rebuilding Ferguson even though both stem from the same cause, pursuit of even more gross wealth distribution inequity.

    I used to think that democracy would be self sustaining. I was horribly wrong. It’s being stolen as we speak. Is the trend reversible now?

    I don’t know. I just don’t know.

  5. Sheila, as usual you are spot on. If I owned a coffee shop I would give you free coffee. Maybe give Bob some oatmeal.

  6. Companies like Walmart and fast food chains that pay poverty level wages should be required to pay federal taxes that equal the amount of government subsidies their employees receive. They should not be allowed to keep billions while taxpayers subsidize their employees in order to keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads.

  7. Blame is an efficient response to what challenges us. Blame, after all, is both absolving and easy to place. Thanks for a fine reminder of the need to concentrate on being an active problem solver and not just another “lazy” American thinker.

  8. Unfortunately, all of us could be an ALICE family if the situation was flipped upside down. How many people do you know that were one major medical incident away from homelessness or bankruptcy too? One job loss and you could lose your life savings just trying to survive while you looked for another one. One unjustified firing for a medical condition that you could not help or get help for because…you know the rest. Just fill in the blanks. It’s despicable what this country has turned in to. I see that FED X Freight drivers voted down a union in NJ. What is wrong with those people? The GOP has won. They have made it all about the corporations and we ‘little people’ just don’t have a prayer anymore.

  9. You mock Pence and Romney for their comments, then you quote as an authority on poverty the United Way, which has scores of executives making six figure salaries with huge expense accounts, all made possible by people who thought they were giving their money to charity. I always urge people to give to charities directly and not through the United Way which will skim much of the money off the top before directing it to charity.

  10. Below I have copied and pasted a message received this morning from my friend Maywin; Theresa is her daughter and my former daughter-in-law. Maywin lives on Social Security and a few months ago lost here Medicaid assistance; she shares an apartment with her disabled daughter Michelle who lost her food stamps at the same time. They are of course having a difficult time financially. Theresa has worked at Rolls Royce for several years; her layoff begain about one year ago. Below is Theresa’s current situation. My friends Maywin, Theresa and Michelle all qualify for the title “ALICE”. Sheila; you may remember when Goldsmith RIFed hundreds of City employees, told them they could reapply for their old jobs but he rewrote required qualifications and experience so that they didn’t meet qualifications. Being able to reapply at Rolls Royce at minimum wage remnded me of that situation.

    Maywin’s message:
    However, the past 3 months have been tied up with Theresa and her situation.
    No, she is not working yet, and is beyond desparate. She is over 50 now, so it’s not so easy to get a job.
    She’s trying to get the rest of her 401K out as soon as she is officially unemployed…(January1)
    In other words she will no longer be getting sub pay from Rolls Royce. The unemployment ran out months ago.
    After January if she wants to back, she can be rehired at minimum wage. Wow…..from 30 bucks and hour to…….well, you know. I guess they don’t care who works on their jet engines, Tomahawks, and so forth. Fuck the military and all that safety.
    They have outsourced so much of the work along with the quality control that I’m surprised they even know what has been produced until something falls out of the sky or sinks.
    I guess Rolls Royce and their counterparts will be in the news everyday about recalls just like GM, Toyota, and all the other auto manufacturers.

    Oh, you’ll like this……….just recently Rolls Royce accepted a few billion bucks (from the State of Indiana) to not lay off any more Indiana workers, and by golly don’t u know they turned right
    around and laid off another 150. Not counting the 600 aerospace engineers they laid off a couple months ago. (Different state).

    Just another day at the huge money-making corporate office. They don’t have to sweat a thing. Just make the unwashed masses do their sweating for them.

  11. At a holiday party last night, the “host” (an officer at one of our local universities) told the story about a fellow who owns a business. Apparently, this owner found people coming to his door seeking employment most when the unemployment benefits ran out. He would hire some of them, but when unemployment benefits were renewed, he claims, those same people quit their jobs because “unemployment is so good.”

    It’s been a while since I looked at the numbers, but in cases I see the highest weekly unemployment compensation is $290. Again, that’s per week, usually for people who were earning a lot more than that when they lost their job.

    Maybe this business owner was paying these people minimum wage and their net earnings ended up being less than unemployment compensation. He really should get out and learn just what people receive as unemployment benefits before assuming that they are “so good.”

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