August 14, 2020

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Understanding the impact COVID-19 has on working poor families

David Bethuram

Catholic Charities in the archdiocese and throughout the U.S. helps people who are struggling with poverty and other complex issues. We support and advocate for the needs of the poor, provide access to professional human services, and provide disaster relief programs. The majority of the people we serve are poor or living paycheck to paycheck.

According to the 2018 Indiana Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) report, 979,538 Hoosier households were unable to afford the basics of housing, food, health care, childcare and transportation despite working hard to make ends meet.

ALICE-population individuals and families are defined as those who are working, but whose income ranges between 127-185 percent of the federal poverty level. Combined, ALICE-population (25 percent) and poverty (14 percent) households account for 39 percent of all Indiana households. Simply, ALICE can be defined as the working poor—those living paycheck to paycheck, barely making ends meet, and unable to save for emergencies.

Catholic Charities agencies are on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, distributing food, offering shelter, providing health and wellness support and so much more. Our staff has seen a devastating effect on ALICE households.

Working families are often forced to make choices that compromise their health and safety to make ends meet, putting both the families and the wider community at risk of long-term societal and economic repercussions. Tough choices for struggling working families may be deciding between a much-needed vehicle, medication for the month, or even putting food on the table.

They are working jobs that are vital to the success of our communities, such as home health care providers, cashiers, teaching assistants, bus drivers, and many other important occupations that benefit us all. Yet many continue to struggle with the basics. The number of struggling working families in Indiana has continued to rise: one out of four working Hoosiers is a part of the state’s ALICE population. Some are in the trenches caring for COVID-19 patients. Many workers do not have basic employee protections—such as an annual salary, adequate health care coverage, and access to other benefits—that would help them withstand the COVID-19 crisis.

Unfortunately, we have seen business disruption quickly start to reduce the working poor’s income. Reduced hours equal reduced wages. Half of all jobs across the country are paid by the hour. Many of these workers don’t get paid if a conference is postponed or a restaurant is closed.

Telecommuting is not an option for all jobs. These workers are in the service sectors and must work on-site. Security guards and cashiers cannot perform their jobs remotely, and are therefore more likely to lose hours and wages as the economy slows. Inadequate technology and Internet access limits capacity to work remotely. With less access to the Internet and computers, these workers have had difficulty working from home, even if offered that option. Illness and isolation increase costs. These families face additional costs if a family member gets sick, reducing their income if all family members are quarantined.

In these uncertain times, there is an antidote to the powerlessness we feel as we weather social distancing and see the effects of COVID-19 on neighbors, friends and family. It is kindness and charity.

Please pray for the Catholic Charities staff and volunteers who are working to help the poor and others impacted by this public health emergency. Visit our website at and learn how to volunteer or donate to our COVID-19 response.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at

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