Local incomes rising, but poverty is high, as well
The median incomes in Rock and Walworth counties have been rising for four years, but the level of poverty here remains well above pre-Great Recession levels, U.S. Census data show.
The situation mirrors complaints heard at the national level that many people are not feeling the economic recovery, local advocates say.
“I think what you have is circumstances of the 'haves' benefiting from economic recovery and the 'have-nots' not benefiting because job opportunities are few and far between,” said Marc Perry of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties.
Perry said he talked to a client last week who worked at the same place for years and “worked her butt off” to get promoted to full time, but that meant she lost FoodShare and other publicly supplied benefits.
As a result, she had to choose between paying her electricity bill and fixing her car, Perry said.
Those are choices that many face. The United Way of Wisconsin recently completed an economic analysis that shows nearly half of all Wisconsin households don't make enough money to pay for the basics—housing, transportation, child care, etc.
In Rock County, using 2014 data, the United Way analysis showed 13 percent below the federal poverty line but another 27 percent who don't make enough to pay all their bills.
The study calls these the ALICE people: Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed.
These are people working but are one emergency away from falling into poverty, said Mary Fanning-Penny, president and CEO of United Way Blackhawk Region.
Community Action surveys its two counties every three years, and the major problem that has shown up since 2010 is people not being able to find jobs that pay the bills and provide adequate health insurance, Perry said, so people who suddenly have to fix a car to get to work or pay a big medical bill are in desperate straits.
Some can fall back on their families, but those born into poverty don't have that because their extended families are struggling, too, Perry said.
Perry said Rock County also struggles with child poverty well above the state average, which he said is especially troublesome in Beloit and Janesville.
Single mothers are the most likely adults to be living in poverty, as well, Perry said.
Perry noted that while 14.5 percent of Rock County's population lived in poverty last year, that statistic is much higher for people of color.
Statewide, the median income for blacks is about half that of whites, Perry said.
Driving that statistic is other numbers, including the fact that while 96 percent of white Wisconsinites graduate from high school, only 66 percent of blacks do, Perry said.
It is such numbers that led the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2014 to rate Wisconsin as the worst state for black children, Perry said.
The financial website 24/7 Wall St. last month came up with a similar assessment.
“It's a dynamic that's talked about outside of the state on a national scale, but we've had almost zero dialog about it in the state of Wisconsin,” Perry said.
Job training is one of the answers, Perry said. He said Community Action's job-training programs in recent years have reached out to employers to see what skills are most needed and what jobs go unfilled, so the training better matches the need.
That effort has succeeded in placing 80 percent of Community Action's Fatherhood Initiative graduates in living-wage jobs, but whether those jobs last beyond a year is still in question, Perry said.
The need remains much higher than Community Action can deal with, Perry said.
Perry said employers will tell you they want to pay their employees good wages, but often they are limited by economics.
The other side of the coin is that people have to be prepared to enter the workforce, Perry said.
Another solution is changing how public benefits are structured.
“People we talk to, given the choice of being on public assistance and getting a job, it's going to be the job every single time, but it's got to be living-wage employment,” Perry said.
The problem of people losing their benefits when they go to work, putting them in a worse financial situation, is a problem Rep. Paul Ryan has noted in his poverty proposals.
“In terms of the problem, he's nailed it. We've been seeing it over the past several years and are really seeing it now,” Perry said.
Ryan, R-Janesville, is pushing reforms that would push more people from welfare to work.
“We want to make sure it always pays to work and to give local community leaders—those who are fighting poverty on the ground and winning—more latitude and discretion to fight poverty person to person and soul to soul,” Ryan said in a statement when The Gazette asked about poverty on Wednesday.
In a speech in New York on Monday, Ryan held out hope for bipartisan action on poverty: “I've got to think there's some common ground in there. I've got to think there's some common ground in moving people from welfare to work.”
Ryan has opposed requiring employers to pay more, saying that would “do more harm than good,” and said there are better ways to improve the economy.
Ryan's Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Ryan Solen, said: “People sometimes need help, and I refuse to force them to decide between paying a heating bill or eating a meal because of a statistic. If that same family must turn down a job because it doesn't provide enough for the family, then it makes sense that they would continue receiving help until they find employment that provides or takes advantage of other opportunities that allows an improvement in their employment possibilities.”