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ALICE households decrease in Ottawa, up nearby

By Kate Carlson/The Holland Sentinel • May 26, 2019 at 6:00 PM

WEST OLIVE — The number of working households that are asset limited, income constrained, and employed — known as A.L.I.C.E. — has decreased in Ottawa County, but it is not necessarily a good thing.

The Michigan Association of United Ways recently released new data in an A.L.I.C.E. study. A.L.I.C.E. comprises households that earn more than the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living, which varies across communities.

Greater Ottawa County United Way President Patrick Moran presented findings from the study on Wednesday to a full room of about 120 people at the Ottawa County Fillmore Street Complex.

Of Michigan's 3,935,132 households, 536,594 earn below the Federal Poverty Level — 14 percent — and another 1,128,012 households — 29 percent — are A.L.I.C.E. The number of A.L.I.C.E. households increased by 13 percent across the state from 2010 to 2017. For seniors, there was a 17 percent increase in this time period.

Meanwhile, the number of households below the A.L.I.C.E. threshold in Ottawa County decreased and is at 31 percent, which is tied with Livingston County for the second lowest in the state.

This is much better than the 43 percent of households in the state that are below the A.L.I.C.E. threshold, Moran said, but it is important to find out the reason for the decrease.

“Are (people) earning more, or have we just stopped trying to live here and our numbers went over to Muskegon and Allegan (counties), whose numbers got worse instead of better?” Moran said.

They are working to figure out the answer to this question, Moran said, but currently the data does not show the specific reason for the decrease. If the answer is that people are commuting from different counties to their jobs in Ottawa County, this means the main issue is a lack of transportation and shortage of affordable housing, Moran said.

According to a Housing Next housing needs assessment, Ottawa County will have a need over the next several years for about 3,400 additional rental units that are affordable from low-income to market rate.

Another noteworthy Ottawa County statistic is the growing number of Hispanic households over the age of 65 that are in the ALICE population, which has increased by 61 percent.

"We still have an enormous disparity between the different ethnicities in our community as it relates to A.L.I.C.E.," Moran said. "Somewhere something is occurring in our community, some systemic bias, some things are going on in our community that we need to solve to both lower those numbers but also equalize them."

There were increases and decreases for white households across different age and family demographics, but Hispanic households across all demographics saw increases in the amount of families falling below the A.L.I.C.E. threshold.

No city is immune to having a population of A.L.I.C.E. households, Moran said, but in Michigan every city has a higher A.L.I.C.E. number than its corresponding township.

A.L.I.C.E. workers are "vital parts" of communities that employers, especially in Michigan and the manufacturing west side the state desperately need, Moran said.

"We live in a community where we need lots of different income levels, so we need to create supports so everybody in those income levels can have the life they deserve here," he said.

The focus should not necessarily be on how to lower the amount of families that are considered below the A.L.I.C.E. threshold, Moran said, but how to support A.L.I.C.E. households.

"The ripples of the things that occur to A.L.I.C.E. families roll up to us in schools, in businesses, in our police departments, emergency rooms, a lot of places; so we can't pretend that A.L.I.C.E. is separated from our community," Moran said.

Leaders of A.L.I.C.E. households typically work full time or even more, Moran said, and they still can not afford the necessities to live. The cost of survival for an A.L.I.C.E. household is just one issue away, and could be a car breaking down or a child sick causing high daycare costs.

"You end up making decisions that lower the quality of your lifestyle in food, where you live or how you get to work," Moran said.

Moran explained some untrue myths he hears often in communities about A.L.I.C.E..

People think A.L.I.C.E. households should be able to receive government support, Moran said, and sometimes they do, but it is complicated.

"As you progress from poverty, through A.L.I.C.E., toward that threshold, you get less and less support, sometimes at a net negative," Moran explained. "Sometimes you'll lose enough in your benefits going through A.L.I.C.E. that it actually puts you further behind."

Moran said that some people point to low wages as the main culprit of people sinking below the A.L.I.C.E. threshold. This is part of the problem, but higher wages would not be a solution by itself, he said.

"There is no silver bullet. There is no one thing that is sinking our families and no one thing that is helping our families," Moran said.

Learning and understanding the culmination of the A.L.I.C.E. data is important, Moran said, for people across the community among all different kinds of groups to figure out how to support struggling families.

"It's almost like we created a community over here and then we create the (A.L.I.C.E.) families over here and there was never any plan that it could actually work for everybody," Moran explained.

The Michigan Association of United Ways put together a list of public policy priorities aimed at helping families in the A.L.I.C.E. report.

Public policy priorities include a need for stronger support of Michigan's 211 system, removing child care barriers, supporting early literacy, and strengthening the state earned income tax credit.

The 2019 report relies on a wide number of sources, including the latest available American Community Survey from 2017. ACS data from 2018 will be available in December 2019, and the United Way will update its website to reflect the new information, Moran explained.

Read more about the report and look at county-specific data at unitedforalice.org/michigan.

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