United Way's ALICE statistics reveal working poor in Walworth County

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Xavier Ward
Saturday, October 8, 2016

ELKHORN–Imagine standing outside of a food pantry when a BMW pulls up, a man steps out, collects his groceries and leaves.

Other food pantry recipients might think that person was leaching from the system, or they might think the man shouldn't be driving such a car if he needs help to afford groceries.

Status symbols such as luxury cars do not always equal wealth. Many people have lost their money, and a fancy car is their only mode of transport, United Way Walworth County Executive Director Marianne Hunter said.

The belief that poverty has only one face is what the United Way wants to fight against, Hunter said. She wants everyone to know that poverty has many faces, and everyone has a story.

A group of people the United Way labels as Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, or ALICE, is what Hunter calls “the working poor.” They do not fall under the poverty line, but their work benefits do not allow them to afford all living necessities.

ALICE started as an initiative in New Jersey but quickly spread through United Way branches across the country, Hunter said. Wisconsin is the 11th state to adopt ALICE, according to a United Way fact sheet.

Based on research conducted by United Way, 42 percent of adults in Wisconsin cannot afford basic necessities. In Walworth County, 43 percent of the population lives either below the poverty level or is considered part of the ALICE population, according to the fact sheet.

Many Walworth County residents were at one time able to sustain themselves, but they lost money because of one cause or another, Hunter said. Many of them earlier had even lived quite comfortably, she said.

The federal poverty level for an individual in Walworth County is $11,670. That number, Hunter said, does not represent a realistic means of support.

Based on research by United Way, the annual household survival budget in Walworth County is estimated to be $25,968 for a single adult and $58,836 for a family of four, which is more than double the federal poverty level.

In a place such as Lake Geneva, where 52 percent of the population is categorized as ALICE, people need job benefits such as health insurance as much as a salary, but the benefits are often hard to come by, Hunter said.

Towns that thrive on tourism such as Lake Geneva often have this problem, Hunter said.

There are many service industry jobs, but very few full-time jobs, Hunter said.

By hiring multiple part-time employees, companies are able to avoid the cost of benefits, Hunter said.

For many of the people helped by the United Way, being able to provide for their families is a matter of pride, Hunter said.

A big part of United Way's job is helping people plan for the future, Hunter said. Many are struggling to make ends meet, and it's hard to plan for the future when they can hardly pay their current expenses, she said.

This is the hidden face of poverty that ALICE exposes, Hunter said. Another side of that is the choices people who fall under this demographic must make. It's often between feeding their families or buying gas for their vehicle, Hunter said.

Addressing the problem of income inequality at the state and county level has only just begun, Hunter said.

United Way is working to come up with preventative measures and is trying to find sustainable solutions, Hunter said.

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