Study: 6,000 families work, can't pay bills
Nearly one St. Mary Parish household in three was unable to afford basic living expenses in 2016 even though at least one member of the family was employed, according to a statewide report released by the United Way of Acadiana.
The numbers will come as no surprise to the people at St. Mary Outreach, the agency that provides emergency assistance with food, clothing, rent and utilities.
The United Way report bears the name ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It is designed to measure the number of households that don’t make enough to pay for basic living expenses despite a regular paycheck.
In 2016, the year from which the report draws data, 20 percent of St. Mary’s 20,164 households had incomes below the established poverty level. At the time, the poverty line was at $11,880 for a single person and $24,300 for a family of four.
The separate ALICE component, those working but making less than the United Way estimate of basic living expenses, was an additional 30 percent, or about 6,000 households.
The study was based on minimum living expenses of $18,966 for a single person in St. Mary and $51,576 for a household made up of two adults, one school-age child and a pre-schooler here. The estimated needs for the family included $638 per month for housing, $542 for food, $938 for child care and $644 for transportation, among other bills.
Single people must make at least $9.75 an hour to meet basic expenses, according to the estimates. The family of four needs to make $25.79 an hour.
Statewide, the number of ALICE-and-poverty households reached 48 percent.
St. Mary’s combined figure of 50 percent actually puts it in the upper half of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. The economic problems brought on by falling oil prices and the shift in energy production to inland plays in the West pushed the Morgan City area's unemployment rate over 10 percent in June 2016.
The economic dislocations haven’t stopped. St. Mary Outreach served a record number of families in both November and December, said Alana Andrus, assistant director.
An extra 250 families raised the number of families served to 600.
As in the ALICE report, St. Mary Outreach is seeing people who struggle even though they bring home a paycheck.
“It could be that they’re making enough to make it through most of the year,” Andrus said, “but something comes up, like car repair or the water heater giving out.”
St. Mary Outreach is also seeing people “who have jobs but their hours get cut and they don’t have enough to get it through the month,” Andrus said.
The same downturn that creates more demand for St. Mary Outreach services puts downward pressure on the donations on which the nonprofit agency relies.
“We’re getting hit like everyone else,” Andrus said.