Workers can't count on healthy bottom line

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Margaret Plevak | October 16, 2016

ELKHORN — In Wisconsin, 42 percent of the state's households have adults who go to work every day but aren't sure they'll be able to put dinner on the table tonight for their families, pay the electric bill this month or buy prescription drugs to manage chronic conditions like high blood pressure.

The findings are the result of a United Way of Wisconsin report released in September on the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or ALICE. Often referred to as the working poor, these are people who don't fall under the poverty level but can't afford basic necessities.

“The forgotten group are those folks who are working. They have jobs. These are people who we live with, work with, who are our friends and who are one health scare or one paycheck away from being in crisis,” said Mariann Hunter, United Way of Walworth County's executive director.

While the “welfare queen” image of people on assistance persists, the report shows adults in ALICE households are employed but still struggling financially.

“Given the choice between working and not working, people choose work,” said Marc Perry, community programs director for Community Action Inc., which serves Walworth and Rock counties. “People want to work, to support themselves. You don't want to let your family suffer.”

The federal poverty level is $11,670 annually for a single adult and $23,850 annually for a family of four.

ALICE reports, which have been used by United Way branches in more than a dozen states, provide a breakdown of household survival budgets, based on researched regional costs that include housing, transportation, food and taxes for each county in Wisconsin.

In Walworth County, the data shows an individual would need to earn $25,968 annually to meet basic needs; a family of four, including one infant and one preschooler, would need $58,836.

In Rock County, the survival budget is $23,244 for one adult and $58,656 for a family of four.

The data also uses three economic categories to rank each county — housing affordability, job opportunities and community resources.

In Rock County, affordable housing and community resources earned a rating of fair, and job opportunities scored a good rating in the report. Yet troubled spots remain both in larger cities, like Beloit, where 58 percent of all households are either at poverty or ALICE levels, and small villages like Footville, where 45 percent of its 312 households are at poverty or ALICE levels.

United Way Blackhawk Region President and CEO Mary Fanning-Penny said she thinks Wisconsin's economy is recovering and the area is rebounding but knows plenty of challenges remain.

In today's service economy, many adults are working low-paying jobs, and few can afford to save for emergencies. Expenses like child care and finding reliable transportation to work can be barriers to just making ends meet, she said.  

“(The report) continues to be eye-opening data,” Fanning-Penny said. “ALICE ... puts a face on the men and women we see on a regular basis, from child care workers to retail employees. It provides a new demographic, another tier of families and individuals who, despite working, are still trying to be self-sufficient.”

In Walworth County, all three economic categories earn a “poor” rating, putting the county at the bottom third of the state, Hunter said.

The county provides transport services for niche groups such as seniors or people with disabilities, but there is no public transportation system to help people without cars get to work, she said.

More employers are cutting hours to avoid paying benefits, primarily health insurance. Hunter said social agencies report seeing many people working two or three part-time jobs to come close to a 40-hour week, but without benefits.

Sara Nichols, executive director of Open Arms Free Clinic in Elkhorn, said many patients who work in jobs ranging from clerical to manufacturing say they get a promise from employers of health insurance 90 days after they start the job, only to be let go on day 89.

Although the Affordable Care Act gives more people coverage, many are finding that while they might be able to afford a plan's premiums, the deductibles are beyond their means, Nichols said.

Other jobs, based on agriculture or tourism, may be seasonal.

In Lake Geneva, 52 percent of residents are ALICE and poverty-level households.

“When you look at Lake Geneva, you might think there's no poverty there,” Hunter said. “But the people who own these homes around the lake, that's their second home. If you look at people who live here year-round, the true residents of Lake Geneva, there's a need there.”

ALICE data suggests Walworth County residents need an hourly wage of $12.98 for a single adult and earnings of $29.42 per hour for a family of four to provide basic necessities.

In Rock County, the recommended hourly wage for single adults is $11.62, or $29.33 for a family of four.

“It's not our place to, nor is this (report) intended to say 'Everybody's got to raise their minimum wage,'” Hunter said. “It's more like building a system so that everybody can fit in a certain spot.

“Some of the best examples of that are smaller businesses in our community that realize the people they employ are part of their family and they want to make sure that they're having their ends meet, so they keep within that certain number of employees. And I'm speaking about the smaller businesses as opposed to major corporations like (a department store).”

Hunter said there's a stigma to needing help that prevents people from sharing their stories, tending to make ALICE households invisible. 

“It's not something you talk about at work. 'Hey, how was your weekend?' 'Well, I went to two food pantries and got my family all set for the next few weeks,'” she said. “That's not common conversation.”

“It's a mindset, and there's a lot of pride involved, which I would never take away from any human being,” Nichols said. “Folks don't want to ask for help in general and wait until they've reached their most critical point.”

The wait can end up having a ripple effect throughout the community, Nichols said. Patients regularly turning to the emergency room for help cause hospitals to recover the costs through price increases. Businesses who under-insure employees suffer lost productivity as sick workers spread germs.

United Way staff see ALICE as a springboard for change.

 “There's not going to be one magic bullet, one solution to this problem. It will require long-term system changes,” Fanning-Penny said. “We're looking at ALICE to become the platform for dialogue among policy makers, academics, businesses and social service agencies.” 

Hunter pointed out organizations in the county like the Walworth County Child Advocacy Center and the Association for the Prevention of Family Violence.

“There are so many organizations that do so much good in our county, but there's still obviously this gap, this need for getting people out of that cycle so it's sustainable. So that there's a safety net and they don't end up in crisis,” Hunter said. “We're trying to stop that cycle, that line of dominoes.

“If we can get everybody financially stable, then it raises everybody else up.”


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