New ALICE project data brings attention to large percentage of residents struggling with basic needs
By Cory Smith | on March 25, 2021
For those who find themselves not quite in poverty, but still struggling to break free of financial woes, the effort to move upward can sometimes be blocked by a single hardship.
From choosing to buy groceries over making a car insurance payment to foregoing preemptive health care to instead pay for child care, millions of residents throughout Michigan make difficult choices such as these daily just to ensure they can provide for their families.
That much became clear Tuesday as Michigan Association of United Ways President & CEO Mike Larson unveiled the 2021 Michigan ALICE report.
The ALICE Project — which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — and is funded through a partnership with the Consumers Energy Foundation, represents those in Michigan communities who are working yet still struggling to make ends meet.
“We all know who falls into the category of ALICE, they are the households where hard-working Michiganders still have to make tough choices about basic necessities,” Larson said. “Whether it’s deciding between quality child care or paying the rent and picking up groceries, these decisions have long-term consequences not only for ALICE but all of us.”
In the five years since the Michigan Association of United Ways released its first ALICE report (released every two years), state residents have started to get a clearer picture of their neighbors, loved ones, friends, and acquaintances.
“Unfortunately, as the 2021 Michigan ALICE report shows, there is significant work to do,” Larson said. “Low wages, reduced work hours and depleted savings, combined with increased cost of living have made for an uneven economic recovery in Michigan.”
According to the report, more than 1.5 million households (38%) in the state could not afford basic needs in 2019 — an increase of 6% from 2007.
Of Michigan’s 3.96 million households, 13% were below the federal poverty level and another 25% were under the ALICE threshold.
Additionally, 10% of households in Michigan were on the cusp of the ALICE threshold with over 236,000 households just one income bracket away.
With the report focusing on data from a year just before the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, through a pre-recorded statement, said additional emphasis needs to be placed on the ALICE report as even more residents encountered economic hardship this past year as a result.
“In times of adversity we look to the helpers, the nurses, teachers, bus drivers, retail workers (and) skilled workers who keep us all going — the front line workers who showed up so many of us could stay home,” Whitmer said. “They’re the ones we turned to when times got tough. And yet, as this year’s 2021 Michigan ALICE report shows, many of those same helpers are in desperate need of our support.”
Pointing to that 38% figure, Whitmer stressed the importance of working to aid those in that demographic — especially essential workers.
“For essential workers, the numbers were even worse,” she said. “Seventy percent of infrastructure jobs paid less than $20 an hour (and) 63% of nurturers, those in health care, education and caregiving, made less than $20 an hour. Those people we needed most, we haven’t been there for them when they needed us. Low wages, reduced work hours and depleted savings combined with increased cost of living have made for an uneven economic recovery in Michigan, worst of all for our frontline workers.”
Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee in Michigan, said the data brought forward will be key in continuing on with current legislation and seeking out new legislative initiatives to reduce the number of state residents located within the poverty and ALICE lines.
“ALICE households have been hit hard by the pandemic and the state’s ongoing (pandemic) restrictions,” he said. “Many of these households are workers who are providing for their families and are critical to our state’s success. They should never have to choose between paying their child care, health care, car insurance and putting food on the table. I am proud that we have continued focused investment in the state’s budget and in the COVID-19 relief measures to support these families.”
Stamas said those investments include legislative steps previously taken to increase support for education and job training, reduce the cost of children care for affected workers, increase pay for the front-line workers, provide extra unemployment benefits, increasing access to affordable health care, helping increase access to the internet and to support job providers who are struggling to stay open so they can continue to offer good jobs.
“The new ALICE report offers an updated look at the hardships facing the Michigan people and I remain committed to doing everything we can to help those in need as we recover from this COVID and economic crisis in helping our state recover,” he said.
Representing one of many Michigan residents in the ALICE demographic, Justin Brown, an office furniture manufacturer worker from Ludington, boiled his situation down to one phrase — “I make too much money.”
“I make too much money to qualify for food stamps or any other assistance, but I don’t make enough money to make ends meet all the time,” he said. “I fall into that category and it’s so frustrating because I need help and I would like the help, but I can’t get it because I just simply make too much money. I don’t think that I need a permanent leg up, and I don’t want one … I’m just asking for a little bit of help now until the pandemic is over with.”
United Way Montcalm-Ionia Counties Executive Director Terri Legg said Brown’s story can be found throughout both Montcalm and Ionia counties, but she is hopeful the region is heading in the right direction.
Within the report were statistics that showed from 2017 to 2019, both counties saw growth in population and total households, as well as median household income (see info box at end of article).
“That is something to be celebrated,” Legg said. “That’s telling us our community is really embracing ALICE and trying to make things better for our ALICE families. Not only were there increases in population, but households, which is showing me that we are doing the right things. I think we need to continue to keep ALICE at the forefront.”
While those figures increased, the percentages of those unemployed, in poverty or in the category of ALICE all decreased.
“I think the report really demonstrates the work that we as a community have been putting toward our ALICE families, raising awareness and making it a part of our policy priorities,” Legg said. “But there’s still work to do. We know that in our community ALICE people are hardworking, educated and not looking for a handout, but they simply need a hand-up.”
Legg said at this time, the majority of United Way Montcalm-Ionia Counties’ efforts are being placed on improving affordable housing options, early childhood daycare, earned income tax credits and promoting workforce skill sets throughout the region. By improving all four of those metrics, Legg is hopeful the number of ALICE and poverty people in the counties will continue to decline.
“We’re a commuter community (from Grand Rapids and Lansing) and that tells me that we need to continue to focus on affordable housing in our communities,” she said. “We have people that are moving this way, but we don’t have as many available housing options for them. We also really need to put in some supports for affordable child care and access to child care.”
Legg said thanks to the generosity of the Greenville Area Community Foundation, a two-year study on housing in both Ionia and Montcalm counties is nearly complete, performed through the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
“This housing study will really look at what type of housing we need,” she said. “Is it entry-level? Senior? Stick-built homes? The study will dive into both counties that, while separate, are together one region.”
Legg said the results of that study will be shared with area municipalities and developers to help showcase where the need is in each community.
“If we want to attract more people to our community, if we want to attract more business, we have to have the homes to do that,” she said. “For us, the economic development of the community is going to help move people out of poverty and our ALICE families and move them off the cusp.”
ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) 2017 and 2019 numbers at a glance
State of Michigan 2017
Median Household Income: $54,909
State of Michigan 2019
Population: 9,986,857 (0.02% increase of 24,546 residents)
Households: 3,963,558 (0.07% increase of 28,426 households)
Median Household Income: $59,584) (8.5% increase of $4,675)
Unemployment: 5% (dropped 0.9%)
ALICE 25%: (dropped (4%)
Poverty 13%: (dropped 1%)
Montcalm County 2017
Median Household Income: $44,651
Montcalm County 2019
Population: 63,413 (0.07% increase of 457 residents)
Households: 23,913 (1.5% increase of 357 households)
Median Household Income: $49,448 (10.7% increase of $4,797)
Unemployment: 3.8% (dropped 3.2%)
ALICE 29%: (dropped (4%)
Poverty: 14% (dropped 2%)
Ionia County 2017
Median Household Income: $51,980
Ionia County 2019
Population: 64,300 (0.02% increase of 153 residents)
Households: 22,964 (1.5% increase of 339 households)
Median Household Income: $57,043 (9.7% (increase of $5,063)
Unemployment: 4.5% (dropped 1.7%)
ALICE 26%: (dropped (4%)
Poverty 11%: (dropped 2%)