The thought of going back to school triggers fond memories for many of us. It’s in the smell of a fresh box of Crayola crayons or the extra sharp points of those yellow Ticonderoga pencils.
Or it’s that internal debate on which color folder should be used for science class versus language arts. It’s a new lunchbox and the perfect outfit for the first day of school. It’s the feel of a new start and the sheer possibilities for what’s to come.
For some, however, back to school is a stressful, embarrassing time. It’s shoes that are too tight but have to last another season – or two. Or it’s mis-matched, leftover supplies from last year – or worse, being that kid with no school supplies on that first day. It’s showing up in the morning without breakfast and the agonizing wait for a hot lunch. And it’s knowing your peers can see that your family couldn’t afford any back-to-school preparations. This is the plight of ALICE families in Union and Wayne Counties.
Wait, Who’s “Alice?”
You may have heard us use the term “ALICE” before, but we weren’t talking about a person named Alice. This “ALICE” is an acronym developed to describe a certain portion of our population that often goes unnoticed: households earning above the Federal Poverty Level, but not enough to afford a bare-bones household budget (source).
ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE families:
- do not have a safety net for times of crisis (like a savings account),
- have an income that falls short when it comes to essentials,
- and despite the fact that they’re gainfully employed, they’re not earning enough to be comfortable.
These are people who are working in important fields (like childcare or transportation). But their low income makes it difficult to thrive in our local community. They often have to make tough choices between which household bills to pay. They often forgo the things many of us take for granted – like food and healthcare. You might refer to these families as living “paycheck to paycheck.”
According to a 2018 report that measures ALICE rates across the country, 24% of households in Indiana were at the ALICE threshold. In Union County, 9% of households were at the Federal Poverty Level and 30% were at the ALICE threshold. In Wayne County, 15% were at the Federal Poverty Level and 23% were at the ALICE threshold. These numbers were pre-pandemic. It’s safe to assume there will be an increase in the percentage of Hoosiers living at the ALICE threshold.
Back to School for ALICE
Now that you know just how many of your neighbors in Union and Wayne Counties are barely scraping by you can see why the back-to-school season is particularly stressful. On one hand, school back in session takes away the burden of childcare for many families. Which is a welcome relief for those who struggle to find affordable, quality childcare. On the other hand, back to school generally requires a school supplies and perhaps some new clothes for kids. As an ALICE parent forced to make uncomfortable decisions on a weekly basis about affording the essentials. This time of year can feel like an extra heavy burden.
It’s no secret that ensuring kids are well-prepared for school sets them up for a brighter future. Youth Success is one of our four focus areas. A strong start in early childhood education prepares more kids for graduation and makes them competitive in the workforce. When kids graduate career- and college-ready, they become economically mobile. This give them the opportunity to break out of the cycle of generational poverty… and it all starts by heading back to school.
The good news is that there are many local resources for ALICE families – all you have to do is reach out and opt into the services your family needs to get your kids a positive start to the school year.
Local Assistance for Back to School
We recently spoke with Bridget Hazelbaker, Communications Coordinator for Richmond Community Schools,* to learn about the resources available for families who struggle with back-to-school shopping and ensuring their children have everything they need to focus on school. What we learned can be summarized pretty quickly: there are so many options and an entire network of resources available for families who need help. The only caveat? You may have to ask in order to be connected to someone who can help.
According to Ms. Hazelbaker, there is a Community In Schools of Wayne County (CIS) Site Coordinator in every Richmond Community Schools building. These coordinators work to assess the needs of the student body, develop plans to support those needs, work to identify families who need assistance, and refer them to necessary resources. This includes things like dental care or helping kids get shoes that fit and are appropriate for school. Undocumented families are welcome to access these resources as well.
In addition, most schools offer shower facilities and laundry services, as well as free and reduced book fees, payment plans, and clothing closets where kids can get pick out some necessities and toiletries. All students in Richmond Community School get free breakfast and families with young children qualify for free, full-day pre-school. There are plenty of resources available to help all families make sure their kids have a safe and encouraging back to school experience.
How to Get Help
While CIS coordinators try to identify every family who needs assistance, you might find that you or someone else you know in the community could use some help and have yet to be identified by a coordinator. Ms. Hazelbaker encourages you to reach out to your school and indicate that help would be appreciated – don’t wait. A number of United Way of Whitewater Valley’s Program Partners also provide help for families. Visit our Program Partners page for links to agencies that offer resources for children and families.
Even if you are not a parent or an ALICE family needing assistance for back-to-school, chances are you know someone who is…even if you’re not personally aware of their circumstances. You can help our community by making sure this information gets out there. Share this blog on your social media, bring it up in community meetings, print out this article and put it up in your work break room – do what you can to ensure people learn about their options. By providing kids with a good start to the school year, we can help them focus on what’s most important: their education.