United Way data shows where Houstonians are struggling to make ends meet


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According to the United Way of Greater Houston, more than 1 million households in the Greater Houston area are considered asset-limited, income-constrained and employed (ALICE) or are below the federal poverty level. These households — as many as 8 in 10 in some neighborhoods — are unable to afford basic necessities.

The 2023 ALICE Report shows that 32% of Harris County households fall into the ALICE category. Of those, about 80% are Black or Hispanic.

The United Way of Greater Houston’s service area also includes Fort Bend, Montgomery and Waller counties, and only one is below the state average of 30%. ALICE households make up 32% of Waller County, 31% of Fort Bend County and 24% of Montgomery County.

The basic necessities included in the report include access to reliable technology and the costs of child care and education, health care, adequate food, savings, taxes and transportation. The share of households with such financial challenges lines up fairly closely to the 2023 results of the Kinder Houston Area Survey, in which 43% of respondents said they would be unable to afford a $400 emergency. That means an unexpected expense can make for a difficult decision for many households.

“These issues are interwoven and could be described as Jenga blocks. You have one Jenga block that moves and then the whole thing tumbles,” said Jessica Davison, the United Way of Greater Houston’s senior director of learning, compliance and analytics. “Being able to pay rent or sending your child to quality child care — these are choices and consequences people are placed with.”

The number of households classified as ALICE increased to 31% in the United Way’s four-county service area, a 5% increase from the 2021 report. The latest report was based on data from 2021, when many families were receiving COVID-related tax credits or other incentives. With the expiration of many of those benefits plus inflation, stagnant wages and increased costs for basic needs, Davison said it is likely more households are ALICE than the report shows.

“Pandemic support really helped cushion this economic reality for families and what could have been an even deeper economic impact in 2021,” she said. “As those started to end, we just know that neighbors and community members are continuing to struggle to make ends meet, and (we will) just see that grow as we see the population in our communities grow.”

The ALICE report shows 14% of households are under the federal poverty threshold, but the United Way of Greater Houston believes that figure does not accurately capture the number of people facing financial hardship. Instead, it uses the ALICE Survival Budget, which is more specific to local communities.

“The ALICE Survival Budget really gives you an accurate picture of the economic reality for households in the state and county,” Davison said. “That sets it apart from the federal poverty line, because at the national level it’s going to look the same for all the states except for Alaska and Hawaii. Other than that, it’s taking that kind of blanket approach. Whereas the Survival Budget, you can really see the bare-bones, real-world cost of living for basic necessities in the community where you’re living.” 

With the difficult financial balancing act ALICE households are facing, the United Way of Greater Houston has put an emphasis on creating pathways to self-sustainability and financial stability. 

“You need savings to withstand emergencies to build your long-term financial stability,” Davison said. “When you don’t have savings and reality happens, like having a flat tire, it causes you to be late for work, or having to pay the cost of repair. That money usually comes from a grocery bill, or maybe having to pay rent late or not being able to make your child care payment that month.”

In Harris County, Alief had the most ALICE households with 18,798, followed by 16,162 in Pasadena and 12,754 in Sharpstown. The ALICE count was 11,692 in Eldridge/West Oaks, 10,924 in Baytown, 10,493 in Spring Southwest and 10,161 in Mid-West. Rounding out the top 10 were Five Corners (9,924), Bear Creek (9,670) and Katy North (9,322).

Harris County data by neighborhood from the ALICE report is available on the Kinder Institute’s Urban Data Platform. This allows the United Way of Greater Houston to analyze communities by community tabulation area in addition to ZIP code. Community tabulation areas, or CTAs, are groupings of census tracts that closely align with Houston’s superneighborhoods, Harris County school districts and other boundaries. 

“That has been really enlightening to see. It’s been great to look at from a granular level,” Davison said. “Whether it’s the ZIP code or the community tabulation area, you can see where ALICE is decreasing or increasing over time. We're using the data to inform our approach and inform the work that we're doing. That has helped us with our approach to serving the community and helping to support ALICE however they need."

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