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New report reveals financial troubles Black and Latino families face in Central PA

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Septiembre 22, 2023

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A new report from United Way Pennsylvania, a longtime organization that works for the health, education, and financial stability of every resident, reveals the financial struggles among Black and Latino families in Central PA. 

Inflation and the rising costs of gas, groceries, and other basic essentials have forced many households to adjust their budgets and limit unnecessary expenses, with many of them on the edge of poverty. 

“We’re talking about families who are employed, and they make enough money that puts them above the federal poverty level, but they don’t make enough money to afford the basic essentials,” said Tammy White, president of United Way of Berks County.

The report looks to show the financial struggles of these families by measuring the number of households that are asset limited, income constrained, and employed, or “ALICE.” 

ALICE households are determined by calculating a family’s “survival budget,” which depends on the cost of essentials including housing, childcare, food, health care, transportation, and technology. They then compare the cost of those things to the family’s income.

The number of financially struggling households–those below the federal poverty line and ALICE– increased 7% from 2019 and 2021 in the state, according to the report. 

It also found that Black and Latino communities in the state, including those in the most populous central Pennsylvania counties, have higher percentages of poverty and ALICE households compared to their white counterparts. 

In Berks County, roughly 40% of households are poor or struggle to afford a basic survival budget. 64% of White households in Berks County are above ALICE. Roughly 36% are unable to afford a survival budget, according to United Way’s report.

According to the United Way’s analysis, 62% of Latino and 52% of Black households in Berks County fall below the ALICE threshold. A notable majority of that population lives in Reading, where 66.5% of the population is Latino, 43% is White and 12.6% is Black, according to 2022 Census data. 

The report also revealed that single-parent households more often than not, have difficulties affording basic expenses such as rent, food and transportation.

Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, said the reasons for these inequities that have existed for a long time were further exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Some of it is obviously long term institutional and policy-related issues in our country, which has led to inequitable wealth outcomes for certain populations. Some of this is a reflection of multi-generational poverty that exists for a variety of reasons,” Rotz said.

In Dauphin County, just half of Latino households are in poverty or struggle to afford basic expenses with their current income. In Franklin County, the majority of Latino and Black families are also in the ALICE category or living at or below federal poverty level.

On top of inflation, those protections which included increased SNAP benefits and rental assistance, have left families worrying about their next meal. 

“We hear from our local food bank often that they’re seeing a demand higher than during the pandemic,” said Ashley Chambers, senior vice president of community impact for the United Way of Berks County. “Families who may not have needed food assistance are reaching out to the food bank, because they can’t fit that increase into their budget.” 

Language barriers are one of several reasons for economic stagnancy, particularly in Reading where a majority Latino community exists. Some might be limited to low-wage jobs that do not require English, but makes it harder to make ends meet, Chambers said.

For that reason, United Way Berks has been focusing on education by offering English-language classes through its program, providing free ESL classes to Tower Health employees, and building literacy skills in K-12 schools through Read Alliance, a program that pairs Reading High School student reading tutors with first grade students. 

Mike Toledo, president and CEO of Centro Hispano Daniel Torres in Reading, described the findings as confirmation of what Centro’s staff has been hearing from the clients they serve and that the report “paints a picture” of what families are dealing with the conclusion of pandemic assistance. 

The rising cost of rents in Reading is one of the reasons more families are seeking help at Centro, Toledo said. 

“A majority of the families that we’re talking about either become stagnant and just not keep up with the cost of inflation,” Toledo said. “Home rents went up incredibly high, higher than normal in our market here in Reading.”

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