Report analyzes Northeast Tennessee families’ economic situation


By A.J. Kaufman, Managing Editor

While wage increases for low-paying jobs are rising at a record-setting rate, a recent report found that those increases have not offset inflation, nor curtailed economic struggles across Northeast Tennessee.

Released at the end of May by the United Way of Tennessee, the analysis of Census and federal economic data found that almost half (46%) of Northeast Tennessee households are making less money than what’s needed to survive in today’s economy, and therefore live paycheck-to-paycheck.

The report estimates that a family of four in Sullivan County, for example, would have to earn over $64,000 per year to keep up with their basic expenses. The county’s median income is 16% lower than that figure.

The findings are part of the 2024 ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — report, which focuses on families and individuals who are working and generally have incomes above the federal poverty level but still are scraping by on a “survival budget.”

And although poverty levels for Tennessee children have shrunk, about two in five working Tennessee families with children at home reportedly do not earn enough to keep up with basic cost of living expenses.

In 33 Tennessee counties — almost a third — more than half of all households failed to earn enough to meet their so-called survival budgets, even as they earned more than the federal poverty level.
While the number of families below the poverty level decreased by 6% across the Volunteer State during the last dozen years, the number of ALICE households grew by 15% and more than 34,000 households recently were added to the category of “unable to pay for basic needs”. The report found that 1.2 million Tennessee households (about 44% of the state overall) lived paycheck to paycheck.

Looking further locally, according to the study, Washington County has a median household income of nearly $65,000, which mirrors the state average, as does its labor force participation rate of 62%. There are 14% of households in the country living in poverty, just above the state average. Sullivan County sees similar numbers, with a $53,585 median income. Greene, Johnson and Unicoi Counties all have annual incomes under $50,000, lower labor participation rates and slightly higher household poverty levels.

The Business Journal’s concise analysis of this report is twofold.

On the one hand, considering constant economic volatility, that over half of the regional population has savings and is not living paycheck to paycheck is excellent news; on the flip side, the glacial pace of slowing inflation, and Federal Reserve officials’ continuing reluctance to cut interest rates will not soon help the aforementioned struggling Tennesseans.

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