The percentage of Chippewa County households struggling to make ends meet grew from 2014 to 2016, according to a United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley report.
The percentage of households below the poverty line stayed at 10 percent between 2014 to 2016 in the county, according to United Way’s ALICE report – “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.” The report measures poverty and affordability across Wisconsin.
But the number of ALICE households grew from 24 to 26 percent in 2016, according to the report.
Households at the ALICE threshold are above the poverty line, but can’t meet what is considered a basic household survival budget: housing, health care, food, child care, transportation and other expenses.
That slight growth of ALICE households in Chippewa County might be due to higher cost of living, United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley executive director Jan Porath said.
“They might have been once living above the ALICE threshold, but because of additional costs of housing or child care, that would bring them below that threshold,” Porath said.
Some families in that threshold are working multiple or low-wage jobs that “just can’t take them over that tipping point,” Porath said.
Many people struggling to make their budget are retired: 34 percent of Chippewa County households aged 65 or older were above the poverty line, but in the ALICE category.
United Way uses federal data to calculate the monthly costs of housing, child care, food, transportation health care and taxes for each municipality. From federal, state and local data, the ALICE report is created.
Housing costs examined
Many Wisconsin jobs don’t pay enough to support people, according to the report.
“Sixty-five percent of all jobs in Wisconsin pay less than $20 per hour ($40,000 per year if full-time), and most pay less than $15 per hour ($30,000 per year if full-time),” the report stated.
In United Way’s minimalist household survival budget, a single person in Chippewa County pays $466 per month in housing, and a total of $1,614 per month to survive – housing, food, transportation, health care and other expenses.
Housing costs alone are a large share of that budget.
“There isn’t a large inventory of affordable housing,” Porath said. “People are spending … over the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standard: 30 percent of your finances should be going to housing.”
The county has a consistent need for affordable housing, said Chippewa County Housing Authority director Ruth Rosenow.
The Housing Authority’s federally funded voucher program – which gives low-income households rent assistance – is capped at 382 vouchers.
The Chippewa County voucher waiting list is 400 people, Rosenow said: “Right now (the wait) is probably about 14 months.”
Federal funding for the voucher program is diminishing, Rosenow said. While the Housing Authority is authorized to give 382 vouchers, the federal government typically doesn’t provide enough money to fund all 382.
“Each year, there’s been some slight increases, but not enough to keep up with the increase in rental units,” Rosenow said.
Three cities in the county rang in particularly high for financially struggling households.
About 51 percent of city of Chippewa Falls households were below the poverty line or at the ALICE threshold in 2016, according to the report.
In Cornell, 51 percent of families were also below the poverty line or at the ALICE threshold.
Stanley had the largest percentage, with 55 percent of households struggling to meet basic needs in 2016.
There’s not an immediate “silver bullet” solution for financial struggles, Porath said.
Urging lawmakers to widen programs to include ALICE households is a start, she said.
“It’s not uncommon that you have to make less than 185 percent of federal poverty level (for some programs),” she said. “We want to expand that so the entire ALICE population is included. That’s about 250 percent of the federal poverty level.”
Porath urged people to acknowledge that ALICE households are employed people, elderly, young families, friends and neighbors.
“It’s a ‘we’ type of proposition,” she said. “It’s not an ‘us and them’ scenario.”