By TIMOTHY O’HARA Keys Citizen Sep 23, 2023

A new report shows that Monroe County continues to be one of the most difficult and expensive places in the state, if not the country, for working people and families to live.

In 2021, Monroe County again ranked first among all 67 Florida counties with the state’s most expensive ALICE Survival Budget, the bare minimum amount needed to live and work in a community, according to United For ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), a report put out by the United Way.

The bare minimum budget was $38,748 for a single person and $83,520 for a family of four – two adults, two young children. These costs are more than triple that of the federal poverty level of $12,880 for a single adult and $26,500 for a family of four.

Additional Monroe County insights from the latest report state nearly half – 43% – of the island chain’s households could not afford life basics in 2021, with 10% living in poverty, plus 33% falling below the ALICE threshold and struggling to make ends meet. This is an increase from 37% in the 2018 data.

From 2019 to 2021, based on number of households, Monroe increased by 10% from 31,362 to 36,078, yet the percentage below the ALICE threshold increased by 15%, from 13,490 to 15,501. This demonstrates even more in the community are living paycheck to paycheck in the face of skyrocketing living costs.

Reflecting a national trend, another notable change in Monroe’s latest ALICE Survival Budget was an increased monthly food cost from $956 to $1,638 for a family of four, and $316 to $601 for a single person between the 2018 and 2021 data, according to the report.

The number of Florida households struggling financially grew during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a total of 3,866,606 households struggling to afford the basics by 2021, up from 3,639,563 in 2019, according to the report from United Way and its research partner.

That calculation includes the 13% of Florida households in poverty, as well as another 32% of families, defined as ALICE, earning above the federal poverty level but less than what’s needed to survive in the modern economy, according to the report.

ALICE families have been overlooked and undercounted by traditional poverty measures. ALICE is the community’s childcare workers, home health aides and cashiers – those working low-wage jobs, with little or no savings and one emergency away from poverty, according to the report.

While COVID-19 job disruptions and inflation delivered significant financial pain, a combination of pandemic supports and rising wages did help to blunt what could have been a deeper financial crisis, the report found. However, as some benefits are peeled back, and inflation persists, signs of greater financial stress are on the horizon. Ignoring these warning signs places ALICE, the economy and the well-being of communities at great risk, officials said.

“Our local residents often cannot afford to feed their families or keep a roof over their heads. This struggle is hidden in plain sight in the community and the ALICE Report helps bring these challenges to light,” Keys Area President for United Way of Collier and the Keys Leah Stockton said. “Equipped with this latest ALICE data, United Way of Collier and the Keys and our partners can continue to develop effective programs reducing financial hardship in our community.”

The report also underscores need for hunger-relief and nutrition education services in the Keys. The Star of the Sea Foundation (SOS) serves working people in the community, and SOS Founder and Chief Executive Officer Tom Callahan has seen people coming in with work shirts from many local companies, illustrating the point of how hard it is to make it in the Keys these days.

“Many people only have X amount of dollars and some time they have to chose between becoming homeless or being hungry,” Callahan said. “We help them so they don’t have to make that choice. I like to think we mitigate homelessness. … We do it through the support of the community. We continue to grow with the need.”

Currently, the SOS food pantry serves more than 700 families each week, while the Key Largo pantry provides assistance to an additional 150 families, Callahan said.

“To ensure the responsible allocation of resources, we conduct meticulous intake assessments, revealing a startling fact: 90% of the families seeking aid from us have at least one member working,” Callahan said. “This speaks to the severity of the issue; even those working are struggling to make ends meet.”

Since SOS’s inception in 2006, the number of families it serves “has ebbed and flowed, primarily influenced by socio-economic conditions ranging from hurricane recoveries to pandemics,” Callahan said.

“During the apex of the COVID-19 crisis, we reached an unprecedented level of mass food distribution,” Callahan said. “Subsequently, while numbers did recede to our pre-pandemic levels, serving 300 to 400 families per week countywide, the recent spike in food prices has abruptly forced those figures back upwards.

“Compounding the problem, our sources of donated food for distribution are dwindling. Much of our supply comes from the USDA, which itself is grappling with mounting costs and supply chain disruptions,” Callahan added. “Similarly, partners like Publix and Feeding America are curtailing their contributions of salvaged food, citing inflated acquisition costs even at the wholesale level. Even an organization of our size cannot address this demand with retail purchasing, leaving our food stocks at dangerously low levels. Consequently, we are caught in an unsustainable paradox: soaring demand converging with dwindling supplies.”

Recent statistics from the latest ALICE report corroborate the grim reality, Callahan said. Working Monroe County families are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the exorbitant cost of living, and more are becoming reliant on some form of assistance.

“Unless immediate action is taken, we risk eroding even more of our local workforce,” Callahan said.

Every November, SOS offers Thanksgiving food baskets to families in need. Just a few years ago, 200 baskets sufficed; this year, SOS will prepare 400, and even this increased number will fall short of meeting the need, according to Callahan.

The affordability issue is a growing issue throughout Florida, as the cost of rent and mortgages continue to outpace increases in wages.

To read the report and access interactive dashboards that provide data on financial hardship at the state, county and local level, visit http://www.unitedforALICE.org/Florida.

United Way of Collier and the Keys (UWCK) is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the education, health and economic mobility of our neighbors in Collier and Monroe counties. Through strategic partnerships and collaborative efforts, UWCK addresses critical social issues and works toward driving positive, sustainable change to build stronger and healthier communities.

United Way of Collier and the Keys is hosting the second annual “Feed the Keys” community-wide food drive as part of its “Be Like Mike” week, in memory of the late Monroe County Commissioner and restauranteur Mike Forester, who was a member of the organization before his passing in 2021.

The events will be from 2 to 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 20, at the SOS Community Kitchen, 1020 United St. in Key West, Keys Area Interdenominational Resource (KAIR), 3010 Overseas Highway in Marathon, and at Burton Memorial Church, 93001 Overseas Highway in Tavernier.

Community members are encouraged to bring non-perishable items including boxed macaroni and cheese, canned fruits and vegetables, dry/canned beans, canned meats, canned soup, rice, cereal/oatmeal, spaghetti/pasta sauce and peanut butter.

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