Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
In the community, they are known as low-income or working poor. In Calhoun County’s nonprofit sector, they are recognized as ALICE individuals or families and they represent almost half of the county’s residents.
“We all know an ALICE and we have ALICE’s in our lives,” says Alyssa Stewart, Vice President of Impact and Engagement for the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region. “There’s no one in our community who does not know, love, or live next to an ALICE.”
These are the individuals who wait tables at area restaurants, provide basic care to the elderly at senior living facilities or cashier at local stores, among other jobs. “They do important jobs and work in our community,” Stewart says.
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. Though they typically work they often cannot afford basic needs such as housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and technology.
This represents the ALICE threshold. The federal poverty guidelines for a family of four in Michigan is $24,600. The ALICE threshold for a four-person household with an infant and a preschool-age child is $61,000, according to the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region.
“The great thing about ALICE is that it’s based on an actual living budget,” Stewart says.
A glimpse into the life of one ALICE family
Sharon, 53, who asked that her last name not be used, is among 46 percent of Battle Creek residents who fall at or well below that ALICE threshold. She works 20 hours a week at Summit Pointe as a greeter making minimum wage. Her salary is augmented by disability payments she receives as the result of a back injury and money she receives for little projects such as a newsletter she creates for Summit Pointe.
Her disability payments cover the cost of rent and utilities for a two-bedroom house she shares with her 13-year-old son. By the time she buys food, little remains for necessities like clothing.
“I’m not the only one who’s struggling and trying to make ends meet. We are out there trying,” Sharon says. “I’ve got a child who’s 13-years-old that eats a lot and I go down to (Family Independence Agency
) to apply for food stamps and they give us $1. I thought that that was kind of rude. I’m working part-time because of my disability.”
Sharon, seen at the SHARE Center, where she works.
Sharon says she would like to see more support for working mothers like her who are trying to make ends meet and everyone else who is working, but unable to get ahead.
“The other jobs I’ve had didn’t pay much,” she says. “Even right now I’m getting minimum wage and that’s what makes it so hard. I’m not being paid a living paid.”
“I get mad, real mad, but there’s nothing I can really do because (FIA) is not going to help.” Despite the anger, Sharon says she thinks things for her and her son are going “pretty well right now.”
The United Way's Stewart says wages that continue to be relatively flat and the increased cost of living have led to imbalances for individuals like Sharon and it has happened gradually.
“We’ve learned that some people who fall through this ALICE threshold say, ‘I don’t think I’m struggling, this is just my reality,” Stewart says. “Their reaction is that, ‘I don’t want to be looked at as someone who needs help.’ But, the flip side is that now they understand ‘I’m not alone and this is bigger than me.’”
Stewart says many residents who fall at or well below that ALICE threshold are doing part-time work to supplement a fulltime job or they have more than one standard job. This is one piece of information collected in a report compiled by the state United Way and its local affiliates and Consumers Energy. And Stewart says the report debunks misconceptions that people who are struggling are simply making bad choices.
“Data is important, but it’s always important to remember that these are people and we need ALICE people in our community because they are doing critically important jobs like taking care of our kids or our parents in nursing home facilities,” Stewart says. “They’re doing critically important jobs, but they’re not being appropriately valued.”
Every two years, beginning in 2015, the Michigan Association of United Ways, with support from local United Ways statewide and Consumers Energy, releases a report on the state of Michigan’s Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) population. This report, which uses point-in-time data from the previous two years, provides a comprehensive look from a statewide and individual county perspective at Michigan residents who are struggling financially.
This year’s ALICE report
, released in April and based on 2017 data, outlines how low wages, reduced work hours, and depleted savings, combined with the increased cost of living, have made for an uneven economic recovery in Michigan some 11 years after the 2008 recession. This is especially true for about 19 percent of Calhoun County’s residents who are at or below the federal poverty guidelines and an additional 26 percent who meet the ALICE threshold or are slightly below it.
For those who are at that threshold or below it, Stewart says that dollar amount is “really, really low.” To meet the $61,000 threshold, two adults in a family of four would need to make a combined hourly wage of $30.68, she says.
“But, 61 percent of jobs in Michigan pay less than $20 an hour and the basic cost of household necessities has increased by 27 percent,” Stewart says. “The cost of living has increased and wages have not and this can be very difficult for these families.”
Because of the United Way's already existing relationships with hundreds of employers, Stewart says representatives within her organization are able to have conversations with these employers and provide them with information that gives them a more realistic picture of what the situation looks like for employees who are being paid a starting wage of $13 an hour.
These discussions also offer insights surrounding the daily issues these employees face such as arriving late to work because of unreliable or a lack of transportation or how a 90-day delay in providing benefits and health insurance to new employees impacts that individual and their family. “It starts to shine a light so employers can better understand,” Stewart says of the conversations being had.
Although she declined to identify the employers that the United Way has been working with, Stewart says some companies have started paying higher wages on day one of an employees' first day on the job, and some employers are taking another look at their policies on attendance, absences, and paid time off.
The conversations are timely, Stewart says, given the need employers are increasingly experiencing to retain talent.
“Nationally, ALICE is one of the fastest-growing populations. There are forces at play here that are bigger than Calhoun County or Battle Creek,” Stewart says. “We can make those changes, but we also recognize that we are part of a larger economy.”
In addition to working with area employers, Stewart says the Michigan Association of United Ways has a public policy person who guides and coordinates efforts on a state level to create “significant policy changes” to support ALICE households in areas including housing, childcare, transportation, food, and healthcare.
“There are key policies that impact each of these areas,” Stewart says. “We know we can work with local programs to serve ALICE families better, but if the state and local policies aren’t better, it won’t matter.”
These efforts are occurring in conjunction with work being done at the local level. The Battle Creek/Kalamazoo United Way has been investing about $6 million with program partners in both communities with a focus on providing services to ALICE families and individuals.
“A lot of our money really has been invested into (fighting) poverty which is extremely important,” Stewart says. “We know that people who are above the poverty level, but also within the ALICE the threshold, are not eligible for public benefits and need services. If they lose a job or miss a paycheck, it could send them into a poverty situation. Our partners report to us on how they’re serving ALICE populations.”
Neighborhoods Inc., VOCES and Charitable Union are among United Way’s local partners in Battle Creek.
Scene inside the SHARE Center, a drop-in center for homeless people near downtown Battle Creek.
How partners can help ALICE families and individuals
All of those served by the Charitable Union are low to moderate-income even though more than 50 percent are employed, says Teresa Allen, Executive Director of the Charitable Union. The organization provides clothing and household items free of charge to individuals and families who qualify under income guidelines.
“More people are employed in our community, but that median income is not putting them over the ALICE threshold, and they still need benefits and support,” Allen says. “There are lots of barriers for families who are trying to make ends meet and we’re trying to make sure that all free services are made available to our families.”
Sharon says she gets clothing for herself and her son from Charitable Union and recently received their winter coats from the Share Center, a drop-in center and day shelter which provides support services to individuals facing issues such as homelessness, substance abuse or unemployment, which helped her get back on her feet after alcoholism almost destroyed her 16 years ago.
“Because of my alcoholism I wasn’t going to work and I stopped paying the rent. I was in the eviction process and I was hungry. People from the Share Center saw me and invited me over to eat there,” Sharon says.
She went on to work for the Share Center as a literacy teacher and front desk staff. Now, five years into her recovery, she says she’d probably still be on the streets or dead if it hadn’t been for the organization’s support.
“We take someone who is in crisis and make sure their basic needs are being met and work with them to identify any obstacles they might have to moving forward financially,” says Robert Elchert, Executive Director for the Share Center. “Once we’ve taken care of some of their barriers, we get them moving from poverty and link them to other services.”
He says he finds it alarming that close to 20 percent of households in Calhoun County are below federal poverty guidelines and another 26 percent are one paycheck away from a financial crisis situation that could be caused by any number of unanticipated expenses.
The Charitable Union's Allen says the most recent shutdown of the federal government was an eye-opener for many people who for the first time faced what their ALICE counterparts face on a daily basis.
“What we saw coming out of Washington when the government shut down was people worrying about losing their home, car, and daycare. There were food drives being done because people said, ‘We want to support you through this pothole of life'.”
While there may have been enough in savings to cover two weeks’ worth of bills, Allen says she wonders how many people would have enough in their savings after two months to pay those bills.
“The government shutdown was a very weird scenario to have. You had to cover a period of time with no income and it was a good lesson for all of us,” Allen says. “We saw that take it can take a toll and it really brings awareness that you can be middle class and have a great job and that pothole of life will still affect you.”
What happened in Washington is similar to what she sees with families who seek out her organization after an injury takes them out of work and they don’t have enough vacation time to cover their time away or after an employer shuts down.
“Many individuals are just one to two paychecks away from needing our services,” Allen says. “Death happens, an employer closes, you can lose everything in that moment.”
“If it doesn’t get better, we’re going to have a real crisis on our hands to the extent that we’re going to see more households and people living below the poverty line. That’s the cause and effect of people not having enough money to live on,” Elchert says.
The "asset limited" piece of the ALICE Report is an important part of this particular conversation, Stewart says.
“If we can’t build assets on a higher level, we are decreasing assets in our community. We have waves of people who are coming of age to retire and they don’t have assets in place and that will take a toll on our social services network,” Stewart says. “As more people become ALICE, they may face a lack of supports.”
Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.