Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Niaomi Curtis and Rossie Miller are among the new faces of financial instability in Calhoun County.
They also are the faces behind the statistics in the 2021 ALICE Report
that finds that while the number of households in the county living at or below the federal poverty level has decreased there continue to be individuals and families who are struggling daily to get their basic needs met.
Of Calhoun County’s 53,827 households, 14,078 were part of the ALICE population, says Alyssa Stewart, Vice President of Community Engagement for the United Way of the Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region. That is down from the 14,535 households in the 2019 ALICE Report.
“This tells us that more families are moving out of poverty and families in that ALICE space are moving out of that space. It signals a decent amount of mobility where families and households have upward mobility,” Stewart says. “This represents hundreds of households that are on a positive trajectory.”
ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed -- households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living for the county which represents the ALICE Threshold. The federal poverty guidelines for a family of four in Michigan is $24,600 and the ALICE threshold for a four-person household with an infant and a preschool-age child is $61,000.
Niaomi Curtis is a former business owner and social worker who is looking forward to better times in the future. She relies on help from her family and others.
Even though the number of households moving out of poverty increased, Stewart says 39 percent of households in the county remain below the ALICE survival threshold. The report says that 26 percent of all households in Calhoun County are ALICE households, 1 percent above the state average of 25 percent. Stewart says this number is likely to increase in the next report which will include data gathered in the midst of the pandemic.
“We know there are families struggling and in poverty,” she says. “Thirty-nine percent of households were in some ways vulnerable even before COVID and they were likely impacted even more during the pandemic.”
The 2021 ALICE Report is the fourth generated by United Way. Beginning in 2015, the Michigan Association of United Ways, with support from local United Ways statewide, and Consumers Energy Foundation, began releasing these reports every two years. The reports, which use point-in-time data from the previous two years, provide a comprehensive look from a statewide and individual county perspective at Michigan residents who are struggling financially.
The report includes a Survival Budget and a Stability Budget each of which list the cost of basic monthly expenses such as housing, food, transportation, healthcare, and technology for households with a single adult; two adults; two adults with two school-age children; two adults with two children in child care; and for the first time a single senior or two seniors.
The Survival Budget reflects the cost of getting by. The Stability Budget offers a snapshot of the cost of maintaining financially with the opportunity to begin saving.
As a single adult, Niaomi Curtis is making well below the annual total of $22,188 listed in the report's Survival Budget. She says she makes about $800 a month. Under the Stability Budget, she would need to make $42,636 a year to be in a good place financially.
“My life has changed a lot in the last few years and financially I’ve just kind of tanked. I always kind of lived on the edge of that, but with COVID that really shifted,” says Curtis, who lives in Battle Creek and has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work. She had hoped to find a job in her area of study but also needed flexibility at the time to care for her father who was very ill and living in Grand Rapids. He passed in 2018.
She is currently working part-time jobs with Sprout BC filling orders in its Food Hub and at the Pennfield Animal Hospital. Prior to this work, she was employed full-time with Calhoun Community High School as a paraprofessional. During the summer she took on gardening and landscaping jobs and other odd jobs to keep herself afloat.
In August 2019, she went back to work at the high school. When COVID forced the shutdown of schools, Curtis, 47, says she left the high school on March 13 and never went back. She was left with few employment options because she wanted to be able to care for her mother who is older and at high-risk.
She worked landscaping jobs throughout the summer which enabled her to be outside and socially distant and continue to see her mother and other family members. By fall, that work had dried up and she was offered the position with Sprout. Around that same time she took in her sister and a family of five, she knew through the high school, who had been evicted from their home and were staying in a hotel.
“They reached out to me in the Fall and asked if I could help,” Curtis says. “This was me wanting to help and support. What it did was cause this major launching away of any extra bit of money and time that I had. I wasn’t working as much and now all of these people are depending on me and it went to hell quickly. By the first of October, I was clawing my way back out and leaning heavily on my family. My mom and my sister are contributing about half of their income now.”
Rose Miller, a former school board member for Battle Creek Public Schools, has held a number of jobs in human service throughout the years. She is currently studying social work. She relies strongly on her Christian faith.
Being on the receiving end of any kind of assistance is an uncomfortable place to be for Curtis whose previous employers include the South Michigan Food Bank where she served as the Volunteer Manager and provided education and resources for individuals living well below the poverty level.
“For me, being involved in the community, I was familiar with ALICE. I always knew I was that person who hung on that verge so it was easier for me to share my experiences and open other people’s eyes. This year I have become that person,” Curtis says.
The same is true for Rose “Rossie” Miller who has served on the Battle Creek Public Schools Board of Education and has held advisory positions with the Battle Creek Community Foundation, Grace Health, Haven of Rest Ministries, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Some of her time with Grace Health was spent helping others to understand what people in the situation she now finds herself in go through to get much-needed help and assistance.
Miller says she became aware of the ALICE reports when she worked for the South Michigan Food Bank.
“To find yourself in this situation after always being the one helping is hard,” Miller says. “I’ve always believed in giving back and now even with this, I don’t want it to sound like I’m whining and crying. You’ve got people living in cars with their kids and people living in hotels not knowing if this will be their last day living in a hotel. These are all the things that matter.”
Miller, age 60, lives with her husband, a disabled Veteran, and two grown sons who recently moved in with them in their Battle Creek home. The ALICE Survival Budget for Miller and her husband is $39,972 and the Stability Budget is $60,996 for two adults.
Miller has been working for the last four years as a Program Support Assistant with a Battle Creek-based organization that she asked not to identify. She says she “definitely makes less than $40,000 a year.” Her sons work but “wouldn’t be able to survive on their own.”
Miller says her “slippery slope” began four years ago when a series of job changes and an injury eliminated opportunities for her to get better-paying jobs. At about the same time, her husband was in need of medications that are just now being covered through Medicare, and a car and a van they own began falling apart. Any money she is bringing in is being used to cover mortgage, utility, and insurance payments.
“We’re not able to save any money. It’s a struggle right now,” Miller says.
To make sure that her family’s basic needs are met, Miller has been getting personal care items once a month from the Women’s Co-op and food boxes from various distribution sites.
“My daughter is a schoolteacher so she’s able to help us get food bags and go to food lines. I used to work at the Food Bank and now I’m getting services like that,” Miller says. “We’ve always been able to help other people. Now, I just never thought I’d be in this place. We all just sort of help each other. It’s a hard place to be in when you’re in your 60’s.”
Even if you’re above you could be below
Stewart says the decision to include seniors in the ALICE Report came about because there is a growing senior population in Calhoun County and they are facing the same level of financial hardship as younger people.
“For them, the childcare costs go away and transportation might be slightly less, but healthcare costs are significantly more,” she says. “The columns for the monthly healthcare costs for a single senior and two seniors are a combination of premiums and potential out-of-pocket costs.”
But, healthcare costs also impact the ability of non-seniors to get out of the survival budget and into a stability budget or a financial space where they are no longer among the ALICE population. In 2019, Stewart says there was a record high of 58 percent of all workers in Michigan who were being paid hourly and that number has likely increased because of the impact of COVID on many employers.
Regardless of whether an employee makes an hourly or salaried wage, she says it makes a difference in the volatility and predictability and the ability to budget which is going to create a significant impact.
“With the cost of benefits over the last 10 plus years, we’ve seen a significant increase. For employers, some of them have kept the jobs hourly and that can help them control their costs,” Stewart says. “We do see that hourly employees, if the company is not providing benefits, they’ll use ACA (Affordable Care Act) and what may be accessible to them is high-deductible plans. Preventive costs and trips to the doctor’s office are manageable, but if something catastrophic happens, including pregnancy, they could be hit very hard with that high-deductible piece.
“We’ve heard of high-deductible plans that are as much as $7,500. Having to pay $7,500 before that deductible kicks in is a huge burden. They’re having to make really tough and not ideal choices about their health. Households in these situations are really working hard, but they’re not really given great choices. There’s an imbalance in income and the cost of living. If you have very little savings or are in that survival budget, which has no savings, that combined with a high deductible can be a recipe for disaster.”
The Survival Budget for a single adult below age 65 includes an hourly wage of $11.09. To be in the Stability Budget category that person would have to make $21.32 an hour.
Stewart says some single adults can make $12 to $13 an hour and get by.
“We tend to use $20 as a threshold because it sits in the middle as an average for hourly wage for the survival budget. We see that as the floor for a living wage. When people hear $20 an hour they may think that seems reasonable, but there are lots of factors to take into consideration. So many things came into play.”
As an electrician who makes $34 an hour, Derek, 34, who lives in Urbandale, and asked that his last name not be used, says he is an example of someone whose financial situation looks good on paper, but really isn’t.
“My hourly wage is good, but with my child support garnishment combined with my taxes and $40 a week that comes out for health insurance, I take home about $350 a week,” Derek says. “My YTD (year-to-date) gross pay is $11,500 and my total deductions are $8,500 and I have netted $3,000 this year so far.”
He does not own a car and says the company vehicle he drives is his only mode of transportation.
“I have a company vehicle that I get to drive. If I had to drive myself to work it would be a negative in the budget every single week,” Derek says.
His parents helped him buy the house he now lives in with his girlfriend who is helping him pay the bills for gas and electricity, internet, and the phone.
How does he get by?
“It’s budgeting and not spending money,” Derek says. “I will have my kids for Spring Break and we’re not really going to go anywhere and do anything and I will take the week off so I won’t get paid.
“If someone looked at my job without looking at my paystub they’d be thinking I was doing just fine and I don’t qualify for assistance programs because of that. For the last two years I was married I was making six-figures and we had a good house and a new car.”
When the divorce happened in 2014, Derek found himself homeless for a while and faced with $2,400 a month in child support payments for three children and $800 a month for alimony. Last month he got the child support payments reduced to $1,700 a month, but says that isn’t making much of a difference in his ability to get ahead.
“Sometimes those thresholds are annoying,” he says of income level thresholds in the ALICE Report.
Stewart says those thresholds are based on the federal poverty level numbers which are “just so low and out of touch with reality.”
But, this isn’t the information that people who are in a good financial position think about when they question Derek’s situation.
“I’ve had a lot of people hint at maybe I need to take financial classes. I’m not a dumb person. I went through five years of education to get into my career. I’m not a genius, but I’m not a dummy either,” Derek says. “When I was an apprentice, I was really poor too. I was making between $25,000 and $30,000 a year and supporting a family of four on that in 2009. It was really tight and it was a struggle but we paid the rent and utilities. I knew exactly when things would clear. I played those games because I had to.”
Now, he says, “I feel like part of my struggle didn’t change.”
He cautions people about making assumptions about others because “a lot of people could be struggling and you wouldn’t know it. A lot of people think because I’m an electrician and I’ve got a company truck that I must be doing fine.”
Stewart says the ALICE Report focuses on the data and those who are living the ALICE experience which helps to do away with assumptions about who’s doing well and who’s not. She says the release of each report has increased awareness of the issues facing people like Niaomi, Rossie, and Derek among leaders in all sectors.
“I now hear people talking about ALICE, and referencing it. I had a company reach out and say that they want to use the ALICE data to see how they can make improvements for their employees. We had a great audience with policymakers,” Stewart says. “There does seem to be a hunger for this information. We know we’re in a very economically complex environment right now. People are hungry for information that helps them understand. The awareness is growing and the use of this data is increasing.”