More than 1 of every 3 Rock County households struggle to pay for basic necessities, according to a study released this month by the United Way.
The numbers come from the ALICE Project, which mines federal data to derive a “survival budget” and income levels in an area.
The project recently released its latest report, based on 2018 data.
The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the economic picture for many, and it’s likely that today more people endure the stress of not being able to provide for their families, said Mary Fanning-Penny, CEO of United Way Blackhawk Region.
The 2018 data shows 36% of county residents were poor or earned more than the federal poverty level but still could not afford essential living expenses.
That’s an improvement from 2016, when 42% of county residents were found to be unable to pay for necessities.
Fanning-Penny noted Rock County trends slightly worse than the statewide average, which was 34% of people in poverty or meeting the ALICE threshold.
The 36% figure includes the 11% of county residents living below the poverty level and 25% who are considered “ALICE,” which means asset limited, income constrained, employed.
This group has been called “working poor,” although many poor people also work.
Fanning-Penny said there’s no magic solution: “It really takes a collaborative approach. We need policy makers and academics and education partners. We need business and the private sector and the social-service providers all working together to create systemic change.
“We want to be careful to not communicate that this is just a report on wages. It’s not. This is a holistic examination of the conditions of our community,” she said.
Needs include affordable, flexible child care and opportunities for education to advance on the job—all needs that United Way supports in the funding it provides to a variety of community agencies, Fanning-Penny noted.
Fanning-Penny refers to the ALICE group as a person:
“Alice is vulnerable to just one emergency, whether that’s one health care crisis or one car repair or one harsh storm or one global pandemic, and when that crisis happens, Alice may not be able to get to work … and Alice can quickly spiral into poverty. So if our ALICE families can’t afford the basics, they also can’t help stimulate our economy. And so when Alice falls into poverty, that creates a greater strain on local services, and if Alice can’t save for the future, then we all bear that cost. ...
“What we know is, Alice is working. These are families paying taxes. They are working, possibly more than one job,” she added.
The ALICE report notes that from 2017 to 2018, unemployment fell to historic lows in the state and the rest of the country and gross domestic product grew.
But wages rose only slightly, and the state saw a record increase in the number of low-wage jobs, Fanning-Penny said.
Statewide, 60% of the workforce earned hourly wages in 2018, Fanning-Penny said, and 59% of jobs paid less than $20 an hour.
The ALICE report helps the United Way focus its grants on initiatives that can have the greatest impact, Fanning-Penny said.
Those grants pay for the 211 helpline, child care scholarships, job-skills training, rent and food assistance, among others, she said.
Despite an annual investment of more than $1 million in such programs, needs remain unfilled, Fanning-Penny said.
United Way wants people to care about the ALICE group, believing that will lead to a solution.
“One of the best ways for people to be a part of that solution is to get involved, whether they give to United Way or donate their time to other nonprofit agencies or talk to their friends and neighbors about this,” she said. “Becoming aware and empathetic and involved is what we would hope is the result of making this information available.”
When Therese Coogan began driving students to school for Van Galder Bus Company in late 1986, she didn’t plan to stay long.
She had three small children, and her husband, Micky, worked at General Motors.
“It was the perfect job for a mom,” Coogan recalled. “I remember doing my first route and thought I didn’t like it much.”
As the days went on, the children grew on her.
“I liked it more and more,” Coogan said. “You got to know the kids. … And here I am.”
After 37 years as a driver and then as assistant school bus dispatcher, she officially retires Friday.
“I’m having a real tough time with this,” Coogan said, “but I know it is time for me to be out.”
The COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person classes earlier this year, and she stopped coming into the office.
But the 70-year-old leaves behind a notable career that touched many lives while she worked in the background.
In some cases, she has either bused or planned for busing for three generations of students.
“It was fun,” Coogan said. “That’s what makes it hard now, knowing I won’t go back. Work was my home away from home.”
Each year, the company bused anywhere from 600 to 700 students who were on rural routes or had special needs.
Coogan organized the routes and figured out which children rode which bus.
“That is stuff I loved,” she said. “I talked to parents all the time.”
She knew the drivers and the children well and worked hard to solve challenges. If a child had a problem on a route, she tried putting the child on another route. If a route grew too large, she split it so buses were not crossing paths.
Because of her route work, she had no trouble locating streets.
“She knows the city of Janesville better than any other person I know,” said Steve Schroeder, Van Galder’s school bus manager. “She is always my go-to version of Janesville MapQuest.”
When Coogan saw a child’s name, she could see in her mind where the youngster lived and what school the child attended.
“When she put kids on a route,” Schroeder said, “she put them in the most efficient order so there was no backtracking.”
He called Coogan “an invaluable resource to me and the school bus drivers at Van Galder” because of her extensive knowledge of student transportation.
Schroeder said many special- needs children do not like riding the bus, so it is important to get them on and off as quickly as possible.
Coogan’s first concern was always making sure that the kids were taken care of on the bus and that the driver was a good fit, Schroeder said.
“She wanted them to get home safely and as quickly as possible,” he added. “She was always about the kids having a positive experience on the bus.”
Coogen also helped with daily motor coach trips.
“She would help with everything and anything,” Schroeder said. “This last year, we had her coming in at 5 a.m., but she was there at 4:30 a.m. She loved coming to work, and she did a good job of making sure people around her were successful, too.”
Al Fugate, Van Galder’s president and general manager, worked with Coogan for 25 years.
“The words consistent, reliable, dependable don’t really do justice to Therese,” he said. “She was such a stable part of our business. She was our rock through a lot of wild growth years and for some of our more turbulent times, like 9/11, when we didn’t know what the next day would bring.”
Fugate added: “We can’t thank her enough for her service over the years to the students of Janesville.”
Coogan has parting advice:
“I used to tell my kids when they were growing up, if you find something to do that you like, you never have to work,” she said. “I never felt as though I was working. The drivers used to make fun of me and said that my retirement home was down there at Van Galder.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux @gazettextra.com.
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