TRAVERSE CITY — Carmin Farmer lives in a trailer house with leaky windows and soft spots in the floors.
It’s all she can afford on her $16-an-hour job as a security officer for Turtle Creek Casino, where she has worked for four years. After her bills are paid there’s nothing left to put in a savings account for a better place, she said.
“I need to be able to make more to be able to save anything,” Farmer said. “Wages are just not nice for people. Rent is high, day care is high, the cost of living is high.”
Farmer falls into the ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — category of working people whose household income is above the federal poverty limit, but below what is needed to provide the basic necessities of living.
“I’ve always been under the radar,” said Farmer, a widow with two adult children. “I make too much money for any kind of help or assistance, but too little money to live on.”
The 2021 ALICE report was released Wednesday, showing that in Grand Traverse County, 24 percent of households are considered ALICE — a total of 9,067, with another 9 percent — 3,391 — falling below the federal poverty limit of $12,490 for a single adult and $25,750 for a family of four.
The average ALICE household survival budget in the state was $23,400 for a single adult, and $64,116 for a family of four in 2019. The numbers vary from county to county and are used to create a threshold budget for the basics — rent, utilities, food, childcare and transportation.
Emily Arocha considers herself lucky to have found a place to live in Williamsburg when she decided to move to the area in July, though she drives 15 minutes to get to her bank teller job in Traverse City. She lives by herself with her two dogs, who she lets out every day on her lunch hour, adding more drive time to her day.
“I make it work,” said Arocha, 21. “I live comfortably with a roof over my head and food on my table.”
She also has a family that helps out when needed. But living comfortably means having money in the bank, she said.
“I unfortunately don’t have the ability to do that because I live paycheck to paycheck,” Arocha said.
In Grand Traverse County, the number of ALICE households ticked up a little from 2016, while about 200 fewer households were below the poverty level.
But data used in the report is from 2019, before the pandemic. It comes from the American Community Survey, which has a two-year lag, said Seth Johnson, executive director of United Way of Northwest Michigan.
Before the pandemic about 35 percent of residents in northwest Michigan struggled with balancing rent, childcare, food and more, Johnson said.
“And that’s only been exacerbated by COVID,” Johnson said. “We don’t know how that will affect those numbers, but we know there are more ALICE households than there were.”
Matt McCauley, CEO of Networks Northwest, said before the pandemic, which disproportionately affected low wage earners, the region was at historically low unemployment for several months.
“And yet the ALICE rates persisted,” McCauley said, adding that over the past year there were upticks in both the poverty rate and the ALICE rate, something that is not reflected in the report.
New in this year’s report is the Michigan average senior survival budget, which for 2019 was set at $26,244 for a single senior and more accurately represents household costs for people age 65 and older.
Also new is including internet as a basic household expense.
“We know, especially from this last year, internet access has proven itself to be critical,” McCauley said. “It’s a critical part of our economy.”
Abagail McKiernan is the founder of Spark in the Dark, which uses social media to connect people in need with people who are able to help them. Someone may have a baby crib to give away; someone else may need help to get their brakes done.
McKiernan said there is a tendency for people to believe that people who are poor are lazy or uneducated. That simplifies the issue and makes it about character instead of a broken system, giving people a sense of false security, she said.
“As long as they make good choices and work hard they will never experience poverty, which of course isn’t true,” McKiernan said. “Most of us are two paychecks away from being in real trouble.”
McCauley said people in the ALICE category are everyone’s friends and neighbors.
“These are people that you interact with on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s not an isolated issue.”
Information in the report is meant to be used by leaders in the public and private sectors to recognize that there is a gap out there, McCauley said.
“Thirty to 40 percent of working households can’t make ends meet from month to month,” McCauley said. “That is mentally and physically trying for those individuals and it creates instability for our economy.”
When you reach a critical mass of households it becomes a question of sustainability and resiliency for communities, he said.
“How many issues out there affect 30 to 40 percent of households?” McCauley asks. “That’s critical mass.”