Compass: Financial stability makes for a stronger community

Living paycheck to paycheck. Most of us have been there. Stretching every dollar until that one month when a car repair, an illness, or shortened work hours trigger a financial nose dive. Too many families are teetering on that financial cliff. Seventeen percent of Anchorage residents reported having to go without basic needs in the last year, up 13 percent from 2009. Thirty-four percent spend too much of their income for housing to be considered financially stable under federal guidelines.

The most common unmet need reported at Alaska 2-1-1, United Way's statewide health and human services help line, is for rent and utility assistance. So it's not surprising, but is still deeply troubling, that the number of Anchorage children who are homeless has risen 12 percent since last year.

Even families who aren't on the precipice are struggling financially. A fourth of Anchorage residents are not able to save money for the future. Average rents in Anchorage have increased by 55 percent since 2000, yet median family income has increased by only 39 percent. It takes a household income of $50,000 to rent an average two-bedroom apartment; yet average annual wages for the three largest occupations in Anchorage (retail sales, cashiers, fast food workers) is below $25,000.

As a community, we can help stabilize families so that fewer are homeless or go without basic needs. Once stable, we can help families to gain job skills and financial management tools so more become financially self-sufficient and spend less of their income on housing. Then help them increase their savings and assets to weather life's storms and plan for retirement and their kids' college.

When we offer a helping hand, we do more than promote individual self-sufficiency. We anchor a strong community, secured by more and more financially secure families.

Financial struggles are even more pronounced in the depth of winter and have harsher consequences. That's why United Way of Anchorage has proclaimed February as Financial Stability Month, a month dedicated to shoring up struggling families and helping everyone become financially secure. We do this by boosting income supports, providing financial management tools, connecting people with the help they need, and reporting current community data and trends so we can act quickly.

Be part of promoting financial stability month. Here's what's happening:

• The best way to end homelessness is to prevent it. Oftentimes families just need a slight boost to make up a rent or utility bill shortfall. "Walk for Warmth" on February 9 raises critical funds for rent and utility assistance to keep families housed and warm through the winter. Last year warmhearted walkers kept 61 families from getting cold or becoming homeless.

• February 11 is "Alaska 2-1-1 Day." A single call to 2-1-1 -- a free, confidential referral service -- connects Alaska residents to essential resources like job training, transportation, health care, food, shelter and more. Get connected. Get answers.

• Tax relief is a welcome financial component to anyone's life. February 16 is One-Stop Tax Preparation and Financial Services "Super Saturday". Qualified residents can get free tax preparation. They save tax prep fees and are ensured careful attention when applying for refunds and earned income tax credits. Free financial workshops, resources and information booths are on site. In one year alone, over $11 million dollars were saved in refunds and credits which helped our neighbors meet their daily financial needs. The saved funds also helped boost our local economy.

• Keep your finger on the pulse of your community by checking out the latest report of Anchorage's quality of life trends: Envision Anchorage - 2012 Progress Report will be issued on February 17. By routinely collecting and examining quality of life data, we as a community can set shared goals for improving lives, drive coordinated action, and measure progress. The data collected specifically sets our course for promoting community financial stability.

February may still be dark and cold, but the glow of building a better future for Anchorage warms us all. Financial Stability Month. Be part of the solution.

Belinda Breaux is chairwoman on the United Way of Anchorage board of directors.