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United for ALICE: Agency study identifies growing area need

United for ALICE: Agency study identifies growing area need

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While Dodge County’s countryside, cities, and villages may look clean and prosperous, there are many hidden signs of poverty. Indeed, the number of residents in need is rising dramatically according to the ALICE Report released July 27.

ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The ALICE Report is published every other year as a measure of financial struggle. It is compiled by United Way of Wisconsin and local United Ways across the state. Federal sources include the U.S. Census, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. State data sources include the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and the UW-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty.

Measurements shared in the study reveal that 34 percent of Wisconsin’s 2.4 million households are struggling to afford basic necessities like housing, child care, food, transportation and internet access.

“We know about the people who are living in poverty, but ALICE helps identify the people who have jobs but still can’t make ends meet,” said Dodge County United Way Executive Director Harper Mruk. Mruk was hired early this year for a full-time position at United Way of Dodge County’s new office at 215 Corporate Drive.

Households in poverty have been rising steadily in Dodge County, from about 2,500 in 2010 to 3,241 in 2018. ALICE numbers have also risen dramatically.

Those who fall within the Federal Poverty Level make less than $12,140 per year as a single person, or $25,100 for a family of four. Those who fall within ALICE guidelines make between poverty level and $22,140 per year for a single person and $69,132 for a family of four.

Among the 35,221 households in Dodge County, those in the ALICE range include 15 percent of those single or cohabiting, 12 percent of families with children and 35 percent of those 65 and older.

Salaries are estimated at or less than $11.07 per hour for a single person and $34.57 (combined) for a family of four.

All evidence points to ever-rising numbers since 2018 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), and an exponential hike in numbers since the pandemic arrived in March.

United Way supports programs and services that support basic needs, self-sufficiency, crisis intervention; strengthening individuals and families; developing children and youth; and promoting health and healing. A total of 20 partner agencies address those needs, with more assistance provided through numerous grants and community outreach programs.

Mruk is working to let people in need know that assistance is available through United Way’s ongoing efforts. Its annual fall campaign, which begins in September, hopes to reach a goal of $310,000. That new goal is the highest in the agency’s decades-long history.

“We’re here for people who need help, who need that assistance to get from the point of struggling to thriving,” said Mruk. “Our mission is to make sure that anyone in crisis can get out of crisis. Measurements like the ALICE Report insure that we know what Dodge County’s needs are and that we’re prepared to meet those needs as best we can.”

Cost of living is locally calibrated, reflecting the actual costs that people in Dodge County are paying. Housing, for example, may cost less that it would in Madison, but wages — and presumably benefits — are lower as well.

“ALICE includes information like how many people are working, how many are unemployed and other local figures,” said Mruk. “Using that data insures that our measures actually mean something.”

“Overall about 20 percent of our households are in the ALICE state,” said Mruk. “We’re a little bit below the state average, but that’s still very significant. If you look at your neighbors that means that one in five households is struggling to survive.”

“It really does show the need for a greater emphasis on making sure that households can be productive and are not just struggling,” said local United Way Community Engagement Coordinator Mary Kuntz. “By using the figures we do, we know that our data is accurate. Granted, this report was conducted pre-COVID. It’s safe to assume that the need is rising and will continue to rise for some time into the future.”

“As we know, food stability, housing stability, vocational stability are all at greater and greater risk for as long as the pandemic lasts and beyond,” Kuntz added.

More than 50 percent of the students in the Beaver Dam Unified School District qualify for free and reduced lunches. In 2015 it was labeled a “high poverty school district” by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. It has since lost that designation and the financial aid that went with it.

United Way of Dodge County is eager to help.

“Our job is to raise money to support our partner agencies,” said Mruk. “They’re our boots on the ground and we raise the funds to back up their efforts.”

Those who find themselves in need are urged to call 211. To learn more about how United Way is addressing the financial hardships experienced by ALICE families, and how to work with United Way to help visit www.unitedwaywi.org.

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