They are teachers, first responders, child-care providers and retail workers. They are neighbors, friends and colleagues. They are essential to the fabric of the Licking County community, and yet, they are falling through the cracks. 

They are the 37% of Licking County households who live paycheck to paycheck – one flat tire or unexpected medical expense from financial disaster. From the outside, it can be difficult to see just how rocky their circumstances might be. But a closer look reveals that stability is what they are missing, according to a new report by the United Way of Licking County

Ashley Washburn is among them. She is a single mom and the executive director of Family Health Services of East Central Ohio in Newark, but she is also ALICE.  

ALICE is an acronym developed by United Way that stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.” The term describes individuals and households who earn above the federal poverty level but less than what’s needed to survive in the current economy. And that 37% finding is a 3% increase from the 2019 study, said Deb Dingus, executive director for the United Way of Licking County. 

In Ohio, 660,423 households live in poverty, and 1,237,500 fall within the ALICE threshold, totalling 39% of households in the state. That’s 1.9 million Ohio households who are forced to choose between buying groceries and paying other bills such as for rent or utilities. 

Nearly 200 donors, volunteers and representatives of community organizations attended the United Way of Licking County’s annual breakfast meeting Tuesday, May 28. Credit: Alan Miller

“We’re not qualifying for certain benefits, but we’re not able to make it from check to check,” Washburn said in a video played during United Way of Licking County’s Impact and Award Breakfast Tuesday, May 28 at Denison University’s Mitchell Recreation Center. 

As a board member for United Way of Licking County, Washburn, who also spoke in person during the event, said she finds herself in the target demographic the organization seeks to help. 

“I am lucky enough to have a great village that supports me and helps me with my children,” she said. “But all too often at work I see individuals that don’t have any kind of support system.”

Dingus referred to individuals and households such as Washburn’s as those who “live at the mercy of market wages and philanthropy.” 

In the face of such uncertainty, United Way of Licking County works to find a path forward and fill the gaps they see in the community. 

“United Way gets up every morning and asks, ‘Where are we now?’”Dingus said in her opening remarks at Tuesday’s 6:30 a.m. breakfast. The theme of this year’s Impact and Awards event was “Charting the Course,” referring to United Way’s vision of locating starting points for new beginnings – a way to anticipate the needs of the vulnerable members of the community and meet them. 

“We are one of the fastest growing communities in Ohio, and in the nation. We won’t recognize ourselves in five years,” said Dingus about Licking County’s rapid growth. This fast-paced climate means innovation for many, she said, but it also puts additional strain on the most vulnerable members of its community. 

That is why United Way of Licking County is devoting its service to mitigating difficulties caused by inflation and the ever-increasing costs of living through ongoing research and action. For the 37% of households in Licking County the United Way says are at or below the ALICE financial threshold, United Way’s advocacy works to promote financial stability despite high costs of survival. 

Licking County communities with the highest percentage of households living in poverty or close to it are Newark, 50%; Mary Ann Township, 49%; Washington Township, 40%; Heath and McKean Township, 39%; Burlington Township, 38%; Madison Township, 36%; Newton Township, 35%; Franklin Township, 34%; and Union Township, 33%. 

The United Way’s research of financial hardship in Ohio collects data on costs of living, wages by occupation, changes in public assistance, variation in household size, retirement, and race demographics. By creating a complete and accessible picture of the people who experience financial hardship in Ohio, Dingus said United Way is bringing humanity to the forefront of its work. 

It is individuals such as Mallory Meeker, the recipient of the United Way’s 2023 Hope Award, who exemplify those at the heart of United Way’s mission. As she accepted the award for her inspirational journey in substance-use recovery, she credited United Way of Licking County and its partner organizations for helping save her life. 

“I am an example of what United Way and its partners can do when we all pitch in and choose to be an ingredient in a recipe for recovery,” Meeker said. She expressed her gratitude for the Licking County community that has given her so much, including the people of Licking County Alcoholism Prevention Program (LAPP) and Whole Living Recovery – places where she says she felt she could breathe again for the first time in her life. 

“I don’t know what the perfect solution is for homelessness,” she said, “But without a shadow of a doubt, I know we are kicking its ass at Whole Living Recovery.”

Many other honorees were recognized at Tuesday’s breakfast for their contributions to United Way’s cause. From local businesses and organizations to individual volunteers and donors, the Mitchell Center at Denison University was filled with the spirit of humanitarianism as awards were presented on behalf of United Way of Licking County. 

The organization also highlighted some of its new initiatives on Tuesday, including the “Hygiene Hub,” a program to provide essential – and expensive for some families – hygiene products to Licking County youth, and the “Volunteer Hub,” a one-stop destination for all volunteer opportunities. 

Give, Advocate, Volunteer. That is how the United Way and its partners plan to fulfill their goal of supporting those at risk in Licking County: By giving their time and money to stock food pantries, by volunteering to assemble health and hygiene kits, and by advocating for their neighbors, friends, and colleagues who make up the 37% of the county’s households living below the poverty line or struggling to make ends meet. 

Raising awareness is the catalyst for lifting these individuals and families from their economic hardship, and Dingus said the United Way of Licking County is taking steps to make that goal a reality every day.

Katie Corner writes for write for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.