New Jersey didn't need a global pandemic to throw hundreds of thousands of additional families into financial despair — that was already happening before COVID-19 hit the Garden State.

According to a report released by United Way of Northern New Jersey, the number of New Jersey households just one emergency away from financial ruin (also known as ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) has jumped 41% over the last decade.

A total of 1.2 million households, or 37%, were in financial distress in 2018, between families who meet the ALICE threshold and those in poverty, the report finds. From the start of the Great Recession through 2018, the number of ALICE households in the state went from 612,790 to 865,196, the report shows.

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"These already fragile ALICE households are now facing an even deeper financial hole due to the state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," said Kiran Handa Guadioso, CEO of United Way of Northern New Jersey.

The ALICE population, for the most part, earn enough not to qualify for public benefits, but don't earn enough to easily make ends meet. According to the report, "they often work as cashiers, nursing assistants, office clerks, servers, laborers, and security guards."

Specifically, the report found that ALICE households were locked out of the post-recession economic recovery due to "meager pay raises" that were heavily outpaced by the rising cost of goods. According to a new measure debuted by the report, the cost of "ALICE essentials" such as housing, child care and food has risen at a rate that nearly doubles the standard annual inflation rate.

"Using the Consumer Price Index alone to measure inflation provides an incomplete picture of the cost of living, severely underestimating the mounting financial pressures on ALICE families," said Stephanie Hoopes, national director for New Jersey-based United For ALICE.

At 51%, Cumberland County had the greatest share of households below the ALICE threshold in 2018, according to the report. Hunterdon County posted the lowest rate, 23%.

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