Rent. Utilities. Food. Child care. Health care. Transportation. Taxes. A basic phone plan.

What is the common thread that unites these eight categories?

First, these essentials collectively comprise a basic monthly budget for Maine households. In short, it is a survival budget. It is not a budget that includes saving for retirement, college, a vacation or a baseball game.

Second, 42% of all Maine households struggle to cover these costs paycheck to paycheck. More than 249,700 Maine households do not make enough to get by with any sense of security, predictability and stability.

Of these households, 12% meet that traditional, official definition of poverty. Another 30% are what we call ALICE, which stands for asset-limited, income-constrained, employed.

Typically, these Mainers work full-time at low-wage jobs. Sometimes they work multiple part-time jobs trying to cobble together enough for a survival budget.


Think for a moment about the ALICE workers you have encountered or will soon encounter. Maybe you dropped off your child at child care this morning. Then perhaps you filled your gas tank before you started your day. Maybe you went to your favorite coffee shop or picked up something at the grocery store. There may even be a delivered package sitting outside your door.

ALICE workers are the engine that makes our economy – and our daily lives – run smoothly. During the height of the pandemic, they took center stage, showing up for us when we needed them the most while falling even further away from financial stability. Yet all this time, they’ve been overlooked and undercounted as they live each day unable to make ends meet in our state.

ALICE lives everywhere in Maine, although the highest rates of hardship are in northern and rural counties. ALICE households also span all ages, genders, races and ethnicities. Some groups experience hardship at disproportionate rates, stemming from long-standing challenges like systemic racism, sexism and ageism. In 2022, 60% of Black households in southern Maine fell below the ALICE threshold versus 37% of white households. And 69% of single female-headed households don’t make enough to get by.

ALICE isn’t new. ALICE has always existed. What is different is we have the data and information to shed light on this important, sizable and too often overlooked part of our community. At United Way of Southern Maine, we will increasingly focus our community investments, public policy, programming and volunteer work to help ALICE households rise.

During tax season, for example, UWSM prepares taxes for free for families making less than $64,000. This year, we helped southern Maine taxpayers access refunds of more than $1.2 million.

We also fund and lead the Greater Portland Workforce Initiative, which brings together businesses, nonprofit service providers, government and job seekers to meet workforce development needs in the region. We have helped people achieve credentials and enter careers in health care and child care, and are expanding to include transportation careers.

On the public policy front, we helped to successfully advocate for $10 million to construct 130 affordable housing units and $21 million for programs helping people experiencing homelessness. UWSM is using all the tools available to us to make long-lasting positive change for those in our communities experiencing financial hardship. Our friends, neighbors and family are ALICE. Many people reading this piece are ALICE.

The task for all of us is to determine what we will do with this data. It is alarming, sobering and overwhelming, but it is also actionable. United Way of Southern Maine stands ready to play its part in making this state a place everyone can afford to live, work and retire. What role will you play?

Join the Conversation

Please sign into your Press Herald account to participate in conversations below. If you do not have an account, you can register or subscribe. Questions? Please see our FAQs.