Walworth County Government Today: United Way donations help prevent poverty in local communities

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Dave Bretl | October 10, 2016

On Sept. 27, I helped the United Way of Walworth County launch its 2016-'17 fundraising campaign. I really appreciated the chance to express my gratitude to all of the community leaders who were in attendance for the good work that they do. These leaders included United Way board members who take time from their regular jobs to perform the challenging task of soliciting donations to support a variety of worthwhile causes in the county.

I got a taste of this a few years ago when I helped with a United Way campaign and I can attest to the fact that there is a lot more to fundraising than simply sticking a large “thermometer” in front of the courthouse and watching the pledges pour in. These directors meet several times each month to account for funds, determine how money should be allocated and, most importantly, strategize as to how more funds can be raised. I am a horrible salesman and it always amazed me to watch the merchants, builders and bankers in our county, who comprise the board of directors, reach out to provide for those in need.

Also in attendance at the kickoff were representatives from agencies supported by the United Way. Cynthia Simonson, executive director of VIP Services, and Marc Perry, community programs director for Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties, spoke on behalf of the 45 agencies supported by the United Way of Walworth County. The United Way focuses on the three building blocks of education, income and health in order to effect lasting change.

 While the United Way has had a presence in our county for many years, the United Way of Walworth County is a relatively new organization. Several years ago, two chapters — one based in Lake Geneva and another in Delavan — merged to form the current organization. I thought this was a great idea at the time and I still feel that way.  By pooling resources, the organization has taken on a countywide focus.

A focal point of this year's fundraising campaign is to create awareness of the working poor in our county known by the acronym ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed).  ALICE represents the growing number of individuals and families who are working, but struggle to afford the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, health care and transportation. ALICE individuals earn more than the federal government's definition of poverty, but less than the amount needed to cover the basic needs of living. The federal definition of poverty is a bit misleading, because the figure has not been revised since 1974.

In our county, the ALICE threshold equates to an income of $25,968 for an individual and $58,836 for a family of four. This equates to an hourly wage of $12.98 and $29.42, respectively. It is centered around a hypothetical budget that takes into account local prices on expenses ranging from groceries to rent. I thought it was interesting that the number of ALICE individuals in our county actually exceeded those living below the federal poverty level by a ratio of two to one. Because their finances are so tight, it doesn't take much for these folks to fall into the poverty category. A broken-down car can cause the loss of a job, which in turn can lead to a loss of housing.

Walworth County government spends a considerable amount of money administering state and federal programs designed to alleviate poverty. The expense budget for our health and human services department will exceed $16.5 million in 2017. The programs that we administer are regulated strictly by the state and federal governments. I have no problem with this oversight. In many cases, these are huge national programs and I would be concerned about fraud and favoritism if the money were dispensed to states with no standards. The downside of this oversight, however, is the loss of discretion associated with these programs. In some cases, a recipient must spend most of his or her assets and become impoverished before they qualify for assistance. Once folks enter these programs, it can be difficult for them to exit. This is where the United Way agencies fit into the safety net. Their goal is to prevent impoverishment. Using donated dollars, these organizations have the flexibility to provide very focused assistance, such as an emergency car repair that will permit a recipient to show up for work.

The ALICE project is part of a national effort that has been going on since 2014. You can find the entire Wisconsin report online by visiting UnitedWayALICE.org/Wisconsin.

If you would like to know how you can help the United Way of Walworth County, Mariann Hunter would be interested in hearing from you. She can be reached at 262-374-4474.

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