The stock market is having its worst January ever. Oil and gas prices are the lowest they have been in almost 10 years. Inflation is, for all purposes, in check. Unemployment is down to 5 percent as millions of jobs have been added in recent years. The economy as been in recovery for more than six years. One would think that things are looking. They are, but not for everyone.

A recently released report, commissioned by Rutgers University, uses current data in a new way to identify those who are struggling financially and why.  The report, in part, covers each county of the Pacific Northwest states.

The study is titled ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it shows that more than 40 percent of Marion County residents live above the federal poverty line but do not earn enough to afford the area’s cost of living and are one unexpected disaster away from finanical calamity.

Forty-three percent of Keizer’s 13,500 households fall into the ALICE and poverty income levels. According to the study a household in Marion County with two adults, one infant and one preschooler needs to gross a bit more than $51,000 annually to afford the bare minimums. That might sound like a nice income, but it is for a family of four. The average monthly expenditures for a family that size is more than $4,000.

Any of us should be able to understand the vicarious of that situation; we have all lived through the Great Recession, many losing jobs and many more losing their homes to foreclosure.

Every family can tell their unique story of how the recession affected them, regardless of income. The recession increased reliance on government programs (SNAP and unemployment benefts, for two). People say the recent economic conditions laid bare the reality of income inequality, which will be one of the main issues of this year’s presidential campaigns.

Protests such as the Occupy encampments allowed people to rail against the so-called 1 percent and demand more equal income which led to calls for an increase in the minimum wage across the country. In Oregon that demand is fostering fierce debate, pitting big cities against rural communities,  progressives against conservatives and business against workers.

At $9.25 per hour, Oregon has the second highest minimum wage in the nation (behind Washington); the federal minimum hourly wage is $7.25. Gov. Kate Brown is proposing a two-tier minimum wage (one for the Portland and one of the rest of the state.  That is unfair; there should be one wage state-wide. Will an increase in the minimum wage help every household in the ALICE category? Probably not. Households at the ALICE level unfortunately are not eligible for most government programs that require a income maximum for assistance.

Why should households that are doing economically well care about the ALICE report and the households at that level? Because those households are part of our community. A desirable place to live is only as strong as the neediest of our citizens.  The trend of conservative states slashing public programs and assistance is troubling. It’s almost like the leaders of those states are saying “We’ve got ours, you get yours.”

A small percentage of recepients of assistance might gloat about being on the dole and not having to work, but we suspect most people who need to seek government help do so under duress. They seek a hand up, not a hand out.

The best answer for decreasing households at the ALICE level in our area is action not talk. This report from Rutgers should not be an invitation to our public officials to pile on with their own reports.

The best thing our public officials can do is focus on economic development—recruiting jobs whose wages can support a family; cut bureauracy and rules that impede the delivery of assistance; and, know the resources available. Again there are dozens of organizations in our area whose mission is to aid those less fortunate.

Let’s lessen the hand outs and extend a hand up. Every family is responsible for its own success but as the recession showed us, sometimes outside forces control our fates.

We have the information, let’s use it to give every household that wants the opportunity to do better, as long as they are part of the solution.   —LAZ