In Waunakee, 24% of the population is just making ends meet, and when faced with a large expense, say treatment for an illness or a car repair, those individuals may be forced to sacrifice another necessity or fall behind on their monthly bills.

This population falls within what is known as the ALICE category of earners. Lisa Humenik, director of the Waunakee Neighborhood Connection, spoke to the Waunakee Rotary Club at its virtual Jan. 28 about those within the Asset Limited, Income Restrained, Employed threshold nationwide and within the Waunakee area. Those households are also referred to as the “working poor.”

The Neighborhood Connection is a nonprofit serving neighbors in need within the Waunakee school district through a free store, referrals to other agencies and emergency financial assistance. Its staff see how families within the ALICE threshold struggle at times.

Statewide, a growing number of families are on the cusp of the ALICE threshold, either 10% above or below it, Humenik said, adding any small drop in wages has an impact. Increases in wages can help stabilize these households.

Humenik shared statistics showing that the survival wage for a single person nationwide is $21,264; for a senior citizen, the income needed is $24,000; and for a family of four, it is $68,000.

Fewer white households fall within the ALICE thresholds, and the numbers of households of other races in this category is growing. Disparities in wages among women and people of color play a role, and while wages have remained fairly stagnant, the consumer price index has risen.

Most earners within the ALICE threshold have low-wage, hourly jobs with minimal wage increases, adding to their financial instability.

Housing costs in the Waunakee area, where rents average $850-$1,170 per month, are part of the equation. Nationally, the cost of rent factored into the report’s survival income is $767. According to the United Way of Wisconsin’s ALICE Project report, Dane County is one of three statewide with the most pronounced housing shortage.

Approximately 1,800 people within the Waunakee school district’s boundaries are included in the ALICE category, and some come to the Neighborhood Connection for temporary assistance. Humenik also shared some statistics about the nonprofit, noting that in 2018, it had 66 client households. In 2019, that number rose to 206, and in 2020, to 222.

About 10% of households in the Waunakee area have incomes under the ALICE threshold, Humenik said, more than the number of families served by the Neighborhood Connection.

“We want to increase the number of families we’re serving,” she said, adding in the long run, the preference would be to see the numbers of working poor decrease.

Many face obstacles to improving their financial situations. Access to housing, health care, child care, education, food and transportation to Madison can all be difficult to obtain.

The consequences of an insufficient income can be housing instability, and periods of homelessness lead to gaps in a child’s education, along with access to health care and food insecurity.

When inadequate food sources are available, children can become developmentally delayed or suffer from health issues.

Without transportation to Madison, particularly public transportation, those in need of public assistance lack access. And while the Affordable Care Act provided many with health insurance, most clinics that accept ACA are located in Madison, as well.

Home computers and internet access are also now needed for those seeking jobs, public benefits or health care, and during this pandemic, those who need to work remotely. People without a social security number also face obstacles.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, with children learning at home and in need of supervision, working parents are struggling. Humenik noted one client is a single mother with four children, one in high school, one in middle school and two in elementary school.

“It’s falling to the older two to supervise their younger siblings,” she said. “These are the types of challenges we’re seeing.”

Humenik said 90% of the nonprofit’s clients work in health care, child care, retail, fast food restaurants and in agriculture, and many have one or more jobs.

To understand the challenges, the United Way has a virtual exercise on its website demonstrating the difficult choices families face, with a scenario of a family of four as one parent is laid off.

“It’s really disheartening to see how quickly you run out of money by the end of the month,” Humenik said.

She added that the Waunakee Community is fortunate to have resources such as the Neighborhood Connection, the Waunakee Ecumenical Board and its food pantry, the Waunakee Area Senior Center and the Waunakee Community School District. Joining Forces for Families is a Dane County resource operating out of the school district serving Waunakee residents, not only those with children, as well. Waunakee’s churches, police, fire and EMS departments also do intervention.

During the pandemic, a county agency is working with homeless families staying at the Waunakee Baymont Hotel, and the CARES Act provided resources to help families avoid eviction.

Directors from Waunakee’s nonprofits recently met to discuss how to best collaborate in their mission to help families achieve financial stability, Humenik said. They are trying to avoid duplication of services and provide services to families as soon as possible. Humenik said people find it difficult to ask and share their stories, so a better entry point has been talked about.

But Humenik said she does see success stories. One client recently passed her real estate broker exam after taking classes, and another is enrolled in Madison College’s culinary arts program with plans to start a food truck.

Economic stability is the goal, Humenik said, adding without ALICE, she’d be out of a job.

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