New United Way report highlights struggles of low-income families


Meet ALICE. ALICE is a hardworking, tax-paying person who gets up to work each day not knowing how they will make ends meet. Despite their income, ALICE struggles to pay for the basics of housing, food, healthcare, childcare, and transportation. ALICE lives paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to set aside savings for an emergency and forced to make short-term choices that can result in long-term consequences. ALICE is vulnerable to just one emergency – one health emergency, one car repair, one storm – that can make it impossible to get to work or to meet their daily obligations.

ALICE is not one person, but a representation of more than 62,000 Central Iowa households that are the focus of a new study by the United Ways of Iowa. ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, and represents families and individuals in our communities that earn more than the federal poverty line but not enough to pay for a basic standard of living. Unfortunately, the number of households falling into this group is growing rapidly, up to 28% of households in Central Iowa and 40% of those in the city of Des Moines.

The faces of ALICEs are those of the neighbors in PCHTF’s Can I Be Your Neighbor campaign. They are cashiers, child care workers, food service personnel, bank tellers, health care aides, repair technicians, landscapers, and auto mechanics – people you cross paths with on a daily basis and who provide vital services so our communities can function. However, they often find themselves unable to meet their daily needs – making tough decisions between electricity, food, health care, and housing.

Why are there so many ALICE households in Iowa? There’s no easy answer, but overall the cost of living is rising faster than wages. Low-wage jobs dominate Iowa’s economy, and are also the fastest-growing jobs in our state. Today, 68% of all jobs in Iowa pay less than $20 per hour, and this figure continues to rise. These jobs are often located far from affordable housing options, forcing longer commutes and making public transportation less viable. Finally, public and private assistance is not enough to help these families reach financial stability.

The ALICE report helps the United Ways of Iowa, including United Way of Central Iowa, as well as community organizations like PCHTF, understand the everyday struggles of low-income Iowans. This report will help inform UWCI’s ongoing work on OpportUNITY, a plan to reduce poverty in our community, and will also inform PCHTF’s work to provide a safe, stable, and affordable home to every Polk County resident. Armed with this information, we hope that community organizations can collectively take action that will stabilize more working families and the wider economy.

To read the full ALICE report, visit