MANATEE -- While 75 members of the Manatee Tiger Bay Club lunched on salmon, salad, bread and cookies at Pier 22 on Thursday, the surrounding discussion focused on the residents of Manatee County who struggle to find their next meal.
The focus was United Way of Florida's ALICE report and how to address the Bradenton-area's income gap issues.
ALICE stands for asset-limited, income-constrained employed. The first ALICE report was done in New Jersey and since then, five other United Way organizations have assembled ALICE reports for California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana and Michigan.
Who does ALICE represent?
The report, assembled using U.S. Census Bureau data, addresses the group of Americans falling above the poverty line but still struggling to meet the costs of basic needs.
"They're our retail, our restaurants, our nail salons and our tourism industry," said Philip Brown, president of United Way of Manatee County. "They're all of us at United Way, and they're all of the people we come into contact with each day; our parents, our children and our families are ALICE."
The acronym made it easy for Brown and others to personalize the issue, and he made it clear ALICE's problems are not just ALICE's problems; they're problems society has to deal with as a whole.
"When ALICE is driving to work and she has had three hours of sleep because she works three jobs, what if she is my phlebotomist? What if she is my nurse? What if she is my teacher? What are the implications of that?"
Ashley Brown, executive director for the Women's Resource Center of Manatee, said government and community organizations must strive to meet the needs of all levels of income inequality.
"As we dig into this, it was started with the premise that programs exist for poverty, but all of those people in the middle, all of us, need services," she said.
They also must be prepared to meet some unexpected resistance.
"ALICE is not comfortable asking for help," Brown said. "ALICE is too busy working and raising kids.
"The next step is getting them engaged and seeing opportunities for themselves," she said. "The biggest obstacles include affordable child care and housing."
The Florida ALICE report breaks down research by county and municipality. In Manatee County, 30 percent of households are below the ALICE threshold, while 13 percent are in poverty. These statistics mean more than half of Manatee County households are comfortably paying for food, housing, clothing, health care and transportation, among other basic needs.
The West Samoset Census Designated Place is the area with the highest percentage of residents in poverty and below the ALICE threshold, combined at 83 percent. The lowest percentage is in the Myakka CDP.
"What we need to help with the income gap and housing issue is leadership, and look at how other communities have dealt with affordable housing in their community," said Adell Erozer, executive director of Turning Points Manatee.
Sherod Halliburton, president of strategic initiatives at Manatee Community Federal Credit Union, said he grew up in the inner city and was raised by a single parent. He said providing financial stability is another important component of the equation.
"Long-term financial stability providing empowerment and not enabling is integral," Halliburton said.
He discussed how many programs and agencies -- such as buy-here pay-here automotive dealerships and pay day loan places -- ostensibly set out to help people struggling with income issues, but often end up making the problem worse.
"Look at rent-to-own furniture," Halliburton said. "ALICE needs furniture like the rest of us. She'll pay for that furniture three to four times over."
Valerie Bliss, a Manatee County resident since 2000 and Tiger Bay Club member, wanted to move the topics past the discussion phase.
"Is there a pied piper? An organization that will bring all of these other organizations and services together?" Bliss asked. "Otherwise, we're just going to keep having this conversation over and over."
Halliburton said he doesn't believe it's necessarily the job of one "pied piper," but he offered Manatee Community Federal Credit Union as a central resource for other organizations who offer services conducive to solving the problem.
"I'll offer my organization as central to the broader solution," he said.
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.