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You know all those reports about how lots of Americans can't afford a $1000 surprise expense like a medical bill or a car repair? Well, forget additional expenses. It turns out that nearly half of the families in America are struggling to pay for food and rent.
United Way has done a study on a group of Americans they call ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The study found that this group does not make the money needed "to survive in the modern economy."
ALICE is your child care worker, your parent on Social Security, the cashier at your supermarket, the gas attendant, the salesperson at your big box store, your waitress, a home health aide, an office clerk. ALICE cannot always pay the bills, has little or nothing in savings, and is forced to make tough choices such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent. One unexpected car repair or medical bill can push these financially strapped families over the edge.
ALICE is a hardworking member of the community who is employed yet does not earn enough to afford the basic necessities of life.
ALICE earns above the federal poverty level but does not earn enough to afford a bare-bones household budget of housing, child care, food, transportation, and healthcare.
Between families living below the poverty line due to unemployment or disability and ALICEs, the study discovered that 43% of Americans were struggling to cover basic necessities like rent and food.
Where are families struggling the most?
Some states have more families living in ALICE levels than others. The 3 states with the most families barely surviving paycheck to paycheck are California, New Mexico, and Hawaii. Each of these states saw 49% of families struggling.
North Dakota had the lowest ALICE percentage with 32%. Despite the lowest unemployment rate since 2000, families all over the country are barely getting by.
The media page of the ALICE website is jammed with headlines that are all too familiar for many Americans:
- Report: Michigan makes little progress in lifting working poor to financial stability
- After a decade of tax cuts -- Ohioans in financial hardship
- Louisiana families work hard, but still can't cover necessities
- 44 percent of Florida households, mostly working poor, struggling to meet basic needs
- Third of New Jersey households can't afford basic necessities
- 42 percent of Wisconsin households struggle to pay bills
And on and on and on...
While many families are still doing okay, the specter of poverty looms over many of us. Many of us know that we're one personal financial catastrophe away from disaster. I wrote recently about my own family's struggle with a large medical bill.
Obviously, I'm not telling you about our financial saga to make myself look bad. I'm telling you because I want you to know that no matter how much you try to do everything right, financial problems can happen to anyone, at any time.
Whether you have $100 in the bank or $100,000 in the bank, something can happen that wipes out your emergency fund just like it did mine.
This doesn't mean that you failed financially - it means that circumstances can affect you, just like they do everyone else, no matter how careful you are.
Before my daughter's illness, I was doing everything "right."
I had enough money in my emergency fund to carry me through 3 lean months
I had numerous credit cards with zero balances
My only debt was my car
My kids are going to school without student loans
I opted out of health insurance because it was more financially practical to pay cash (and I still agree with that decision)
Everything was great.
Until it wasn't.
This is a story that probably rings true to more and more familiar to a growing number of families every week.
While my income hasn't dropped - it's grown - I am still struggling to pay off those bills and recover. I've taken on a significant amount of extra work to get things back under control, and still, I worry it won't be enough.
If it does, it's because - and of this, I am quite certain - the long-heralded economic collapse of America is upon us. When hard-working families who should be "middle class" can barely afford to eat and keep a roof over their heads, things are only going to devolve further.
This is just the beginning of a looming collapse in America.
Remember back when Greece began to collapse? It was the same thing - no one could afford the basics and things went downhill pretty quickly from there. It really hit the papers when a strict austerity program was instituted and culminated when a "bank holiday" shut down the financial system for an entire week.
There are similar stories in the UK (where the taxpayers can still fund a 45 million dollar wedding but poor families can't afford to eat every day), Argentina, and Cyprus.
Jose wrote for us about the warning signs that the collapse of Venezuela was approaching and they're eerily familiar. Food rationing began, the cost of medical care became prohibitive, the health insurance system began to fail, and people began to make difficult choices about rent versus food.
I don't know how it could be any more clear than the fact that nearly half of the American population is also making that decision each month.
What's the answer?
While the United Way hopes to boost the minimum wage, I don't feel that is the answer because it will drive businesses to let employees go when they can't afford to pay them. We have seen this happen in fast food establishments in which humans are on their way to being replaced by self-service kiosks and burger-flipping robots.
I believe the only answer is to begin to produce more than we consume. Currently, Americans are like a horde of locusts, working at jobs that produce nothing, but consuming rabidly the imports that feed us, clothe us, and entertain us. We're looking at economic tariffs on imports that may increase their price up to 40% and our own exports will be subject to tariffs in return.
If you find yourself in a tough spot, these tips from The Cheapskate's Guide to the Galaxy may help.
Audit your situation. See where all your money is going, see how much debt you're in, and see what the most immediate ramifications will be.
Take care of the most important things first. In most situations, keeping your home paid for (rent or mortgage), paying utilities, and making your auto and insurance payments should come first. Take care of the things that will have the most immediate ramifications first.
You may have to make some late payments on less vital things. If so, communicate with those to whom you owe money and try to make arrangements. This may affect your credit, but by communicating with them, you can keep damage to a minimum.
Cut your expenses. When you audit your situation, you may find some places that you can slash your regular expenses. Don't hesitate to reduce services that are unnecessary or to whittle down your monthly obligations.
Put a little money back into your emergency fund as soon as possible. This may sound counterintuitive but having a bit of money for minor emergencies means that you won't need to rely on credit cards for these things, putting you even further in the hole.
Pay off your debts. Use the snowball method to attack your debts. Start paying these off AFTER you pay for the things I recommended in step 2.
Use the things you have on hand. Delay a trip to the store for as long as possible by planning a menu using the food in your pantry and freezer.
Raise extra money. This may come from selling things you don't need, taking on some extra work, or by creating a product or service to sell. However you do this, use the extra revenue wisely to get out of debt and to rebuild your emergency fund. There are more ideas for making money quickly in this issue.
And to harden yourself against the collapse that will only get worse, make these changes to help your family survive.
What can you store?" is not the right question to ask.
"What can you make?" - that's the right question.
Your focus has to be on long-term sustainability, frugality, and self-reliance. Don't get me wrong - a stockpile is sensible and an essential course of action. It should definitely be part of your preparedness plan.
However, you need to also be ready for the time when the supplies in your well-stocked pantry are no longer available. You need to be able to meet as many of your own needs as possible or you'll end up being one of those people wearing dirty clothes because you can't find laundry soap or going hungry because you can't find any food at the stores - or can't afford it if you can find it.
You need to be ready for the end of a consumer-driven lifestyle, because quite frankly, there may soon come a day when there are no consumer goods to be had. Here are some ways to work on your
Here are some ways to work on your self-reliance:
Looking for the thrifty answer using things you have on hand, instead of purchasing a solution to every problem
Fixing things that are broken instead of replacing them
Eating simple food you prepare from scratch
Producing as much of your own food as possible
Learning to forage
Using "old-fashioned" alternatives for disposable things like diapers, wipes, feminine hygiene supplies, paper towels, and the like
Learning to make cleaning supplies and soaps, especially from accessible supplies (like vinegar, ash, and foraged natural ingredients)
Learning to make pantry basics like vinegar, sourdough, and cultured dairy products
Learning to preserve your harvests to see you through the lean days of winter
Providing your own services like heat, garbage disposal, and water
Learning about natural remedies from accessible sources
Learning to protect your family and property
It's only by reducing your need for the things sold in stores that you can exempt yourself from the chaos and desperation that will erupt when everyone realizes that an economic collapse has occurred.