Life on the edge: one crisis away

Connecticut is pulling out of the devastating recession that began in 2008, with thousands of jobs added every month and the corresponding unemployment rate dropping to a six-year low of 6.4 percent.

Yet a comprehensive study released this month by the United Way agencies in the state indicates, even as we celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, the recession's effects persist.

A startling 35 percent of the population in one of the wealthiest states in the country is just a crisis away from financial disaster.

Poverty, comprising 10 percent of that number, has been well documented and many programs are in place to help, although perhaps not enough.

The United Way report reveals a significant part of the population is working, but struggling.

The agency calls this group ALICE, for Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed. They are in every Connecticut community. They do not qualify for federal programs, but are living on the edge.

The study found a family of four, with two adults, one infant and one pre-kindergarten child, needs an annual income of $64,889 to survive in Connecticut.

That simply is beyond many people, although they may be hardworking.

More than half -- 51 percent -- of all jobs in the state pay less than $20 an hour, which amounts to $40,000 a year, well below what is needed for stability.

Nearly 70,000 jobs have been created in the state since January 2011, but they do not replace the high-skilled, manufacturing jobs that paid well but have been lost.

Connecticut, with a high median income, is the image of wealth. Look closer, as the United Way did, and a troubling picture emerges of a vast, struggling, lower middle class.

A total of 332,817 households are in the ALICE population, and they are in every town and city working jobs such as office clerks, nursing and teaching assistants, retail sales, food preparation or janitors.

The study scaled the "survival budget" for each locale, factoring in housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, taxes and miscellaneous; nothing for savings or emergencies.

The tendency in the face of something so large is to think that nothing can be done. As the report noted, however, the "struggles affect the overall social and economic viability of our communities."

So for practical, as well as moral, reasons, solutions must be explored.

The 16 United Way agencies in Connecticut, including the United Way of Western Connecticut, took a valuable step by documenting the situation and raising awareness.

The agencies show the power of communication between communities.

If nothing else, there needs to be a coordinated effort between nonprofits to ensure consistency in addressing this growing population of people living on the edge.

Individually, much can be done to help many. Support food pantries, donate to Operation Fuel through a utility company, volunteer talents such as tax preparation or financial coaching. Help one person at a time.

Remove the stigma of asking for help.

The United Way has done a public service by documenting the number of households living on the narrow edge.

One crisis away, their troubles are our own.