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Do You Know Alice?

by Jim André & Caroline Lane

33% of our fellow Virginians have an income below the realistic cost of basic necessities.

You know ALICE. You teach ALICE. You work with ALICE. Some of you may be ALICE.

ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. These are individuals and families who, while working, cannot afford the realistic cost of basic necessities.

ALICE households often do not qualify for government or social service programs—these are our neighbors who are child care providers, home health aides, mechanics, retail workers, and service providers. This could be a new graduate, a young family, a retiree, or a family who has experienced unforeseen life events. These are many of the adults that adult education serves.

But until the United Way did the work to give ALICE a voice, this population was hidden. ALICE reports were generated in several states before 2016 when Virginia’s Rappahannock United Way called together other United Ways across the state in order to raise awareness of this overlooked group. Virginia’s ALICE report includes a snapshot of the ALICE population in each of Virginia’s 133 counties and independent cities.

United Way’s report tells us that in 2018, 10% of Virginia households fell below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). An additional 29% qualified as ALICE. This number represents 1.2 million Virginia households. That’s 39% of our fellow Virginians who have an income below the realistic cost of basic necessities. The ALICE report exposes the reality that traditional measures hide—that this additional 29% of our working neighbors, those not falling below the federal poverty level, struggle to support themselves. We know that during COVID-19, these percentages are increasing.

The highest number of ALICE households reflects Virginia’s largest demographic groups—white households, single or cohabiting households (without children or seniors), households headed by someone in their prime working years, and married-parent families. However, a look at the percentage of ALICE households within all demographic groups reveals that single-female-headed households, young households, and Black and Hispanic households have disproportionately high percentages of families living below the ALICE threshold.

select household groups by income in Virginia in 2018

Since the 1970’s, the wage gap has widened between the top 1%, the middle 60%, and the bottom 20%. Moreover, inequality in income and wealth will continue to rise as wage growth and job stability in high-wage jobs greatly outpace growth and stability at the lower end. From 2007 to 2018, the number of low-wage jobs paying less than $20 per hour increased by 34% while medium- and high- wage jobs decreased. In 2018, low-wage jobs comprised 44% of employment. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened economic conditions for ALICE as low-wage jobs in the service sector have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 related closings and are the most likely not to return—a trend last seen during the Great Recession.

Without sufficient income, households living below the ALICE threshold are constantly deciding how to cover the costs of basic needs. The ALICE Project identifies six essential areas of a household budget— housing, child care and education, food, transportation, health care, and technology— as well as taxes that perpetuate this juggling act of choosing housing over food, child care over healthcare, or Internet over repairs for the car. During the pandemic, the consequences of insufficient income place ALICE households at the greatest risk. When faced with increased food and child care costs because children are home, lack of technology to complete homework or telework, or the absence of health insurance, ALICE households must confront a new set of decisions in handling the consequences of insufficient income.

So, how can understanding ALICE in Virginia contribute to effective instruction and programming? What can we do with this information to better support our students? We’ve had our eyes on supports needed for students who are eligible for federal financial aid, but where else can we act? Career Pathways is a good place to start as it creates postsecondary and job advancement so students, for example, can step out of college after receiving their certified nursing assistant (CNA), get a job, and then when able, step back into school for their licensed practical nurse (LPN) and bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) credentials. Clearly defined career pathways will help ALICE students map their way to careers with family sustaining wages.

The rapidly increasing need for digital literacy is another area to focus on when thinking of ALICE. Employers are expecting higher levels of digital literacy from employees without a bachelor’s degree. An article from Community College Research Center, “Community Colleges and the Future of Work: Exploring Skill Demands Amid the  Pandemic” states that entry-level jobs are requiring more and more workers to “input, interpret, and analyze data” as computers and other new technologies are increasingly embedded within daily work life. The ALICE population is vulnerable as many are likely to need increased digital literacy skills and may live in areas where broadband is unavailable. Understanding ALICE spotlights the need to embed these skills in the adult education classroom and throughout the community college experience and to find creative solutions, particularly during the pandemic, to meet the needs of those without broadband access when they cannot be on campus or in a classroom.

Everyone can use a hand in reaching their computer and WiFi access? Do I have outreach goals, and this is particularly true for ALICE. At Virginia’s Community Colleges; coaches, advisors, and financial aid staff are available to help students succeed. Career and student success coaches can help students develop a career plan, find financial aid to pay for coursework, access community resources to help with household expenses, and gain employment. The transition of adult strategies for reaching non-traditional students and people of color? Is my organization free of bias and welcoming to everyone? Do I offer comprehensive coaching services and connections to community resources needed by my students? United Way’s ALICE reports are a study of financial hardship and a call to action. Organizations across the country are using education students to coaching and advising these data to better understand the struggles at community colleges creates a seamless delivery of supportive services as students advance toward their goals.

In addition to coaching, Virginia’s Community Colleges have developed other programming designed to advance households beyond the ALICE threshold. FastForward and Financial Aid for Noncredit Training (FANTIC) offer Virginians training that leads to credentials that are in-demand regionally at little or no cost to the student. VAReady, a recent partnership between VCCS and a consortium of businesses, provides a $1,000 incentive and interviews for students who complete FastForward training for an approved high-demand credential. Through partnerships with the Office of Adult Education and Literacy, Virginia Department of Social Services, Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, and other workforce partners, community colleges participate in integrated education and training (IET) targeting ALICE households. IET models combine basic skills development with industry training, coaching, and supportive services to help individuals gain employment along a career pathway leading to family-sustaining wages.

To serve students who are disproportionately represented in ALICE groups, we must examine our organizations’ practices and ensure that they are aligned with the needs of ALICE. Do I offer flexible schedules that meet the needs of my working students and parents? Can I help with the challenges of computer and WiFi access? Do I have outreach strategies for reaching non-traditional students and people of color? Is my organization free of bias and welcoming to everyone? Do I offer comprehensive coaching services and connections to community resources needed by my students?

United Way’s ALICE reports are a study of financial hardship and a call to action. Organizations across the country are using these data to better understand the struggles and needs of their employees, customers, and communities. Virginia’s Community Colleges are committed to fostering equity in our colleges. As we better understand who ALICE is, we along with our workforce partners are committed to supporting this population as they reach for greater stability and opportunity for themselves and their families.

To serve students who are disproportionately represented in ALICE groups, we must examine our organizations’ practices and ensure that they are aligned with the needs of ALICE. Do I offer flexible schedules that meet the needs of my working students and parents? Can I help with the challenges of omputer and WiFi access? Do I have outreach strategies for reaching non-traditional students and people of color? Is my organization free of bias and welcoming to everyone? Do I offer comprehensive coaching services and connections to community resources needed by my students?

United Way’s ALICE reports are a study of financial hardship and a call to action. Organizations across the country are using these data to better understand the struggles and needs of their employees, customers, and communities. Virginia’s Community Colleges are committed to fostering equity in our colleges. As we better understand who ALICE is, we along with our workforce partners are committed to supporting this population as they reach for greater stability and opportunity for themselves and their families.


Jim AndreJames (Jim) André joined Virginia’s Community Colleges in 2014 as Coordinator for Career Coaching and Transition programs. Currently, he directs education and training programs aimed at advancing the skills and employment of adults and out-of-school youth. During his career in adult education and workforce development, Jim has managed federal and state grants for adult basic education (ABE) and career pathways, served as a local adult education administrator, and taught ABE and workplace classes.

Caroline Lane is the Director of Coaching Programs at Virginia’s Community Colleges. In this role, she oversees coachCaroline Laneing programs that focus on high school students, foster youth, college students who are underserved or at-risk, and adults returning to education and training to create a brighter future for themselves and their families. Caroline is passionate about the part coaches play in changing the lives of members of their communities and the opportunity to continually develop the knowledge and resources to support their work. Caroline has been with Virginia’s Community Colleges since 2011