Special Report: Valley's 'hidden' struggling population

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 13 percent of the 300,000 people who live in the central Shenandoah Valley fall below the federal poverty level.

But many other families are struggling in a way that federal authorities can't easily track, working and struggling day to day to make ends meet.

The United Way refers to them as 'ALICE' (an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). A recent report by the nonprofit organization highlights how many people fall into this category.

"The population really is hidden, because it's people that are working, and I think we make the assumption sometimes that people that are working might not be struggling or that people that are struggling do not have full time jobs. That's not always the case," said Laura Toni-Holsinger, the Executive Director of the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

The findings offer a glimpse of how many families are challenged to make ends meet, which can have an impact on the rest of the community. The effects can include increased health care costs, less productive workers and stress on the education system.

Living with financial hardships can also put families under intense pressure.

"There's a large percentage of our population that is often teetering the line. It often takes one significant medical issue, an unexpected change in child care, a car breaking down, a loss of job or a reduction of wages that can have a really big impact on a family and suddenly leave them with some really stressful decisions," said Toni-Holsinger.

The United Way's report found 39 percent of households in Harrisonburg are ALICE. Combined with families that fall below the federal poverty level, an estimated 65 percent of homes in the city are struggling — the third worst in the state.

"When we first heard about it, we were a little bit surprised," said Tori-Holsinger. "We knew that it was high, not necessarily that high comparatively"

But what can be done to help these families?

Tori-Holsinger said helping people reach important life milestones is key to overcoming financial hardship.

"Whether it's graduating high school or college or attaining a new professional certification, buying a home, buying a car. We want to make sure people in our community have access to get to that next milestone," she said.

The United Way of Greater Augusta has been operating a financial stability program for the past few years, which includes subsidizing child care and free tax services. Another initiative in the coming year would partner the nonprofit with local banks to help increase access to checking and savings accounts.

"[We're trying to] provide ways to help bridge that gap to make it so that they can live a great life and continue to work at where they work but try and meet those ALICE levels so they're able to afford all the necessities of life," said Jeff Miracle, the President & CEO of the United Way of Greater Augusta.

A community meeting is set for March 14 to discuss possible solutions to ALICE. More details will be released in the coming weeks.

Below are the findings for each valley municipality:

— Augusta County:
Total Population: 74,314*
Pop. Below Poverty Level: 10%
ALICE Population: 26%

— Harrisonburg City:
Total Population: 51,388
Pop. Below Poverty Level: 26%
ALICE Population: 39%

— Page County:
Total Population: 23,843
Pop. Below Poverty Level: 15%
ALICE Population: 30%

— Rockingham County:
Total Population: 78,593
Pop. Below Poverty Level: 15%
ALICE Population: 30%

— Shenandoah County:
Total Population: 42,724
Pop. Below Poverty Level: 11%
ALICE Population: 30%

— Staunton City:
Total Population: 24,193
Pop. Below Poverty Level: 16%
ALICE Population: 30%

— Waynesboro City:
Total Population: 24,193
Pop. Below Poverty Level: 17%
ALICE Population: 25%

*Note: Population numbers are based on United Way figures. Recent estimates from the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service's 2017 estimates were higher in all locations except Page County.