ALICE report helps identify gaps in Portage County
By Kris Leonhardt
PORTAGE COUNTY – The recently released ALICE report is shedding some light on the state of households in Portage County, while identifying gaps that need addressing for local programs created to assist those in need during difficult times.
ALICE is an acronym for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” referencing households that earn more than what is considered poverty, but not enough to meet basic needs.
“Oftentimes, when we talk about poverty, we talk about those families and individuals that are living at the federal poverty level,” said United Way of Portage County Executive Director Sue Wilcox. “ALICE is also talking about those individuals that are working and they are able to make their very basic costs of living; but, they continue to struggle to meet their needs and their family needs.
“So, when we have conversations about families that are struggling financially, we are talking about people that are working very hard to make ends meet.
“The number of households in our Portage County community that are ALICE families, that are working and trying to make ends meet and yet continue to struggle, they don’t have that emergency fund that they would need in a crisis situation. They struggle to save, because they are just meeting their basic necessities.”
While conditions improved for some in the years studied – 2010-18 – many in the county still struggled to meet the needs of basic household essentials – childcare, food, healthcare, housing, a basic phone plan, and housing.
“I believe this is our third report. We have been doing it every two years. This particular report is looking at data from 2010-18,” Wilcox explained.
The ALICE report reflected 29,193 households in Portage County, with a median income of $57,452, compared to a state average of $60,773. The county’s unemployment rate sat at 3.4 percent at the time of report, compared to the state average of 3.2 percent. County ALICE households sat at 19 percent, while households in poverty were at 13 percent. State average for ALICE households is 23 percent and poverty households, 11 percent.
Broken down further, the village of Junction City showed the largest number of ALICE and poverty households in the county, at 57 percent. The village of Rosholt and city of Stevens Point showed 44 percent at ALICE or poverty level, and the village of Almond was at 42 percent.
The village of Amherst Junction had the lowest number of ALICE and poverty level households, with 13 percent.
What we learn from the report
“As a funder, we look at the ALICE report, and in partnership with organizations like (CAP Services), have the conversations about where is the best place that we can support community residents through funding and conversations about how to address needs in the community,” Wilcox explained.
CAP Services is a nonprofit community action agency that offers programs to help families in need of resources, to help make ends meet or achieve household goals.
Focus areas, include: job skills and economic security; business coaching and lending; community and real estate development; housing and transportation; child and family development; health, wellness, and safety; and advocacy and community engagement.
“As a service provider, we find the ALICE report to be extremely helpful as we assess our decision making, because it does paint the picture of all of the families who are working, earning an income, and yet they are still unable to pay for all of their household expenses,” CAP Services President and CEO Nicole Harrison said.
“(With) a lot of the public benefits, they are not eligible for any of the public benefits that are available, because they are in that gap.
“So, CAP often uses the ALICE report as a way to help assess our ability to meet that gap and provide those resources to individuals who may benefit from them.
“So, every three years, we do a needs assessment and the most recent one was done in 2019. We look at what those top priority needs are, and in 2019, the top needs were income and financial stability, healthcare, and then safe and affordable housing. So, then we look at structuring our programming to help meet those needs. We look at available resources in the community, where some of those gaps may be.”
The affects of COVID
“I think that what is astounding to me is we’ve got, with ALICE and those at the federal poverty level, we have 32 percent of our households in Portage County that are struggling,” Wilcox said. “That’s 2018 data, take into account COVID and that is another conversation.”
“We’re hearing that the top concerns from people that we work with are unemployment and lack of income,” Harrison said. “Most of the people we work with are in those low-wage, hourly positions, and most of them are in the service industry; so, there is a higher likelihood of reduced hours or layoffs, if the business is not able to continue to operate.
“We’ve had a lot of individuals report lost wages or reduction in wages, due to the nature of the work that they are doing. They have that limited income that results in no savings build up. Households don’t have money to fall back on for these situations, so many are waiting on unemployment compensation and many relied on the economic stimulus payments to help get them through; but, now we are in a period of time of a lot of uncertainty and many are really stressed about how they are going to be able to pay rent.
“I would say that the ability to pay rent and utilities and water bills are probably the top need, we are hearing from people. People are afraid of losing their housing as a result.
“Another challenge we are hearing from people is the need for childcare and access to childcare.
Harrison said that CAP Services has seen an increased need from the community, “Now that they have lost resources, they find themselves in a place where they are looking for ways to help make ends meet.
The report also shows that in the past few decades, county household makeup has changed, with adults who have never been married and senior households at an all time high. Also noted in the report is the growing number of people who live alone or with roommates, as well as an increasing number of children who live with their parents.
However, ALICE and households living in poverty exist across the full spectrum of living situations.
The ALICE report is compiled using data from the U.S. Census, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wisconsin’s ALICE Research Advisory Committee, comprised of academic, government, business, and nonprofit representatives, assists the United Way ALICE national project.