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Wages for the lowest-paying jobs have risen across the country at the fastest rate in four decades, but the number of households struggling to get by in Florida grew by 189,614 from 2021 to 2022 according to a new report from United Way of Collier and the Keys and its research partner United for ALICE.

As a result, a total of 4,056,220 million households, or 46%, were living paycheck to paycheck, according to the report. That calculation includes the 1,125,129 Florida households in poverty, as well as another 2,931,091 defined as asset-limited, income-constrained and employed, or ALICE, earning above the federal poverty level but less than what’s needed to survive in the current economy.

In Collier County, 42% of households were living paycheck to paycheck, the report states. Lee County had 41% of households living paycheck to paycheck, while Charlotte County had 44% and in Monroe County 43% can’t afford the essentials. According to the report, ALICE workers include “nurses, teachers, servers and cashiers— those working low-wage jobs with little or no savings and one emergency away from poverty.”

Wages rising—along with costs

Statewide, the ALICE report says, while wages were increasing, so were costs: The basic costs to live and work in Florida, excluding tax credits, rose from $80,748 in 2021 to $86,316 for a family of four with an infant and a preschooler.

Tiffani Mensch, president and CEO of United Way of Collier and the Keys, said ALICE households represent a unique and often overlooked population.

“These individuals earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, or FPL, but still struggle to meet basic living costs such as housing, food, healthcare, transportation and child care,” Mensch said.

Mensch explained that in Collier County, 32% of the population falls into the ALICE category, highlighting a significant portion of the community that, despite being employed, faces financial instability. In Monroe County, 33% are considered ALICE.

“Since ALICE households live above the FPL, they often do not qualify for public assistance benefits designed to support low-income families,” Mensch said. “This lack of access to essential aid further exacerbates their financial struggles, leaving them especially vulnerable to economic shifts and emergencies. Additionally, 10% of people in Collier County live below the FPL, facing even more severe financial challenges and relying heavily on public assistance programs. The combined reality of these two populations underscores the pressing need for comprehensive strategies to support all individuals struggling with financial insecurity.”

Salaries stay low in some sectors

As for average salaries, the median salary in Collier in 2022 was $82,011 and in Monroe was $80,111, according to the report. However, the largest industries in both counties are retail, construction, food service, health care and accommodation, which are typically low-paying occupations, Mensch pointed out.

“The majority of jobs in our counties are those that don’t pay enough to meet that survival budget,” Mensch said. “About 70% of these jobs are cashiers, cooks, landscapers, teachers, nurses—professions that aren’t high-paying but are absolutely necessary for our community to run, this ‘paradise’ that we live in.”

Mensch said that United Way of Collier and the Keys works with other organizations in the area to help families in practical ways as they navigate challenges, especially with basics such as safe housing while rents continue to rise.

“Housing is always going to be the number one area where, if we provide families with a safe and affordable place to live, everything else can fall into place,” she said. “Without safe housing, it’s harder for kids to learn in school, it’s harder to have access to healthy food and it’s harder to have reliable transportation. There are just so many areas that are affected by a family having an affordable home, and so we have been very intentional in our collaborative efforts in the community, including with the [nonprofit] Housing Alliance, making sure that we have that collective impact in our community and that all of the stakeholders who need to be at the table are at the table and that our programs address needs within the ALICE population.”

(Un)affordable housing

But renting or purchasing a home in Collier County can be out of reach for many, according to Michael Puchalla, CEO and executive director of The Housing Alliance, Inc. in Naples.

“We’ve seen numbers that show the average income for working households for Collier County is probably closer to the $60,000 range,” Puchalla said.

Puchalla cited June 2024 statistics from showing average rents in Collier County at $1,936 for a one-bedroom apartment, $2,321 for a two-bedroom apartment and $2,955 for a three-bedroom apartment. Typically, a renter would need to make three times the total annual rent in salary to qualify, meaning a salary of $69,696 for a one-bedroom, $83,556 for a two-bedroom and $106,380 for a three-bedroom.

And when it comes to qualifying for a mortgage in Collier County, Puchalla said a potential buyer would need to make “well north of $100,000” to qualify, along with approximately $120,000 for a down payment based on the current average value of around $600,000 for a home.

Puchalla, who joined the Housing Alliance in April, said the organization is “dealing with individual consumers and helping them gain information on what resources are available based on their individual household financial circumstances.”

This story was published in The Naples Press on July 5.

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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