Sarah Lethco is not sad to put the month of January behind her. As one of the thousands of families in Blount County living slightly above the poverty line, Lethco said she and her husband find the post-holiday season particularly difficult.
“Our daughter goes back to school, so new clothes, new materials,” she said. “January always seems to be the hardest month to make ends meet.”
The Lethco family falls in with 25% of Blount County families who identify as ALICE — asset-limited, income-constrained, employed.
In September, United Ways across the state received the results of the Tennessee ALICE report. United Way of Blount County released the county’s data at a town hall meeting in December.
At the meeting, United Way officials shared that according to the report, 39% of households are unable to afford the county’s cost of living with 14% living in poverty and 25% as ALICE.
“The report is the first time we’ve had data that represented the struggles these families face,” Jennifer Wackerhagen, CEO of the United Way of Blount County, said.
Lethco was also excited about the data, telling United Way officials it “resonated with her family so much.”
“This is where my family lives, and it is so hard to explain to people,” she said in a Facebook post. “I pray that defining this class will bring about much needed help and attention to us!”
Despite having a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, Lethco finds it difficult to climb in her field. She has worked part-time in New Student Orientation office at Pellissippi State Community College for eight years.
“I’ve tried to climb the ladder. I’ve been trying to jump over the hurdle,” she said. “I’ve been saying for a couple of years that I’ve hit a glass ceiling.”
Adam, Lethco’s husband of six years, works as a manager at Lumberjack Feud in Pigeon Forge where Lethco said he makes a decent salary.
Part of the ALICE report detailed livable wages for people in Blount County. The report offered two budgets: a survival budget — which described the wages needed to have adequate housing, childcare, food, transportation, technology, taxes and miscellaneous expenses — and a stability budget — which allotted more money for the existing budget items and added in monthly savings.
Despite holding stable jobs, the family still lives paycheck to paycheck and have no savings — a common hardship among ALICE families who only earn enough to maintain the stability budget.
“At the end of the month we have $50 or $40 in our bank account,” Lethco said. “We have no savings.”
One of the largest expenses for the Lethco family is childcare. The couple has a five-year-old daughter who attends a private school to get proper help with her speech impediment. Paying for this care, however, is a major difficulty for the family, Lethco said.
“It’s like another mortgage payment,” she said. “But we make sacrifices to have her in that school because it teaches a particular curriculum.”
Besides the obvious hardships of living as ALICE, Lethco said one of the greatest struggles she and her husband experience is making people understand their financial status.
Friends and family members will ask the couple to go out to dinner on the weekdays or take joint vacations, she said, and don’t understand why they decline the offers.
“They think that we are making more money than we are,” she said. “They think that it shouldn’t be a big deal to go out to eat a few nights a week.”
But for the Lethcos, it is a big deal. The family has been on one vacation in the five years since their daughter was born, Lethco said.
She isn’t bitter about her family’s financial status, though. She just wants people to try to understand.
“People just need to give other people grace because you don’t know what other people are going through,” she said. “Making assumptions about income is ignorant because you don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives.”