JACKSON, Mich. — Nearly 40 percent of Jackson County households are struggling to keep up financially, according to the ALICE report from the Michigan Association of United Ways.
ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It's a measure of households struggling to afford basic necessities, even if they don't necessarily fall below the federal poverty line.
The 2021 report shows a slight improvement over the 2019 report but the number of county households in poverty rose to 16 percent from 13 percent in 2019. The federal poverty level is $12,490 for a single adult and $25,750 for a family of four.
Jackson County United Way President and CEO Ken Toll says a single adult can get by earning just over the poverty level, but when you try to support a family "it really blows up."
The report discusses the amount of money households need to "survive." The Household Survival Budget reflects the bare minimum cost to live and work in today's economy including housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, technology and taxes.
"A family of four to meet the survivability budget in Jackson County needs about $52,000 a year if their kids are in public school but if their kids are still in childcare they need $10,000 more, $62,000 per year. That's really something to think about when you think most families just starting aren't making that much money. They're burdened with student debt and they need to be making more at that stage in their life than senior citizens," Toll said.
The 2021 ALICE report does not reflect the totality of the coronavirus pandemic. This is something that United Way representatives are looking at with a very cautious eye.
"We are terrified about what happens from this pandemic," Toll said. "We know that there are well over 1,000 households in the city of Jackson who would be in the eviction process if that moratorium were lifted. The moratorium is also problematic because that means landlords aren't getting paid, and they can't take any steps to address that. The moratorium is certainly not a perfect solution, but we know that alone is keeping people in houses."
The federal eviction moratorium is scheduled to end on June 30.
Michelle and Jimmy Blues, a married couple in Jackson, lived paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic. Still, when COVID hit last year, "bam, no money," Michelle said.
Michelle suffers from several medical conditions causing her to be unable to work. Jimmy works overtime at Elm Plating so they can afford their basic necessities as well as medical bills.
Last year, Jimmy was laid off for 19 weeks due to the pandemic.
"We applied for food stamps, for any type of assistance. We made too much money. We don't have children that are knee-high. They say it is so easy to apply for help. No, it is not," Michelle said.
Jimmyu said that, when the shutdown happened and before his employer got at Paycheck Protection Program loan to make payroll, "my insurance was getting ready to expire. So, I applied for Medicaid and I got told I make too much money and I couldn't have it. I wasn't asking for cash or food assistance and I got told I make too much. So, I was referred to the insurance marketplace and was denied there too because I make too much."
"It was a struggle," Michelle said.
They feared they would lose their home with mounting bills and lack of income. So, they turned to the Community Action Agency to help them get back on their feet.
"They paid my 2019 taxes and my 2018. So, yes they were a huge help. You're not going to voicemail. You're not waiting two weeks. They help you," Michelle said.
The Blues are better positioned now as Jimmy is back to work. They say it will take them a few years to get their savings account back.
The situation isn't much different in the Lansing region. According to the ALICE report, 30 percent of Clinton County residents, 29 percent of Eaton County residents, and 42 percent of Ingham County residents fall below the threshold, meaning they aren't making enough to meet their bills.
Capital Area United Way President and CEO Theresa Kmetz said "it has everything to do" with the types of jobs out there.
"We know the households the most impacted have been those households who would be considered essential workers," Kmetz said. "Whether they're individuals at the local grocery store or it's your hairdresser, your barber or the person who works on your car. All of those individuals are potential ALICE households. We know if they were struggling pre-pandemic, we can expect to see an increase in ALICE households in our community."
United Way officials say there are ways the government can lift these households so they can afford to live.
"We know changing our tax code would help. We know creating more subsidies for child care would be tremendously beneficial because that's so tough on working families. We know access to healthcare access did improve a lot, and that needs to continue," Toll said. "But clearly there is a problem when more than 4 out of 10 in our state, county, and across our country aren't earning enough to get by."
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