Federal poverty lines fall short of reality

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Federal poverty lines fall short of reality

The Community Table allows hungry individuals to have a hot and nutritious meal.
 © Annemarie Payson 2018

The Community Table allows hungry individuals to have a hot and nutritious meal. © Annemarie Payson 2018

The Community Table allows hungry individuals to have a hot and nutritious meal. © Annemarie Payson 2018

The Community Table allows hungry individuals to have a hot and nutritious meal. © Annemarie Payson 2018

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By Annemarie Payson

Amanda Messenger is just one of many Americans who is working multiple jobs but is still struggling to afford the basic necessities. At 31 years old, she is able to make ends meet but has to plan accordingly.

“I waitress at two restaurants and I am also an electrologist. I have a 9-year-old son, 9-year-old step-son, and a 4-year-old daughter, so my life is all about cutting corners with clothes, meals and activities,” Messenger said.

To most Americans struggling to make ends meet, the United States federal definition of poverty falls short of reality in most American cities. While there are assistance programs for those under the poverty level, these programs have not accurately projected the basic living costs, according to United Way. This is leaving many Americans still vulnerable to fall below the poverty line.  These adults are among the working poor. They have one or more jobs but are still living paycheck to paycheck to pay for housing, food and another basic needs.

Messenger knows all about specific examples of cutting costs to help pay for these basic needs she said, “I shop at Woodman’s, I buy in bulk and meal plan for the week. As far as clothes, I buy second-hand throughout the year. Birthdays and Christmas is when (my children) get new stuff.”

Because federal poverty guidelines do not capture the difficulty millions of Americans face when trying to make ends meet, United Way, a national nonprofit that invests back in local communities, developed a new way to measure what it takes to pay for basic living expenses. ALICE asset-limited, income-constrained, employed — is an acronym that seeks to redefine the understanding of what it looks like to be in poverty.

Jessica Oleson Bue, director of financial stability at the United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, said ALICE can be a neighbor or a friend. ALICE is not limited by age or race.

“These are folks that are living paycheck to paycheck, getting up to go to work every day, often working multiple jobs, trying to make ends meet, trying to put a healthy meal on the table for their family at night, living that day-in and day-out struggle,” Oleson Bue said. “A large percentage of their population that may have otherwise be known as the working poor, sort of a hidden population that we now call ALICE.”

The reason they were previously a hidden population is because cities and counties often rely on poverty rates to judge the economic wealth in any given city. But according to Oleson Bue, these poverty rates do not always reflect the true need of a community.

Since ALICE individuals usually do not qualify for poverty-level assistance, United Way started to examine particular needs of different communities.

According to Olseon Bue, United Way’s big focus lately is the United Way Alice Project, which started in Morris County, New Jersey. The local United Way was seeing the needs of the community growing; the lines at the food pantries were getting longer and longer but the poverty rate did not reflect this. United Way wanted to answer why the community need was growing if the poverty rate in said community was not that high.

Eau Claire County was and still reflecting the growing need of community members as well. According to United Way, wages have gone up 14 percent but the cost of living continues to outpace wage increases and national inflation pushes it to an even greater divide. Federal poverty guidelines state the income threshold is under $12,000 annually for a single adult to be considered in poverty. United Way’s ALICE report found a much different and more realistic number.

“What the ALICE report shows us is actually a single adult needs over $19,000 to really make ends meet and again, just covering those basics,” Oleson Bue said. “These are conservative estimates based on local data, so as a result many families don’t qualify for a certain nonprofit or government assistance and really fall through the cracks who are really hard-working people who are just struggling paycheck to paycheck, day in and day out,” Oleson Bue said.

Eau Claire County Department of Human Services’ 2017 report states more than 23 thousand individuals were on medical assistance, and more than 15 thousand were FoodShare recipients that year.

Jen Dahl, economic support consortium manager at Eau Claire County Human Services said there are many different programs for those who are struggling economically. She said it is is hard to say they these programs are specifically for ALICE individuals, as anyone who meets certain requirements could be eligible for different programs.

Messenger faces this reality. She makes around $2,000 a year too much to quality for state insurance but still cannot afford her own insurance.

“My children have state insurance, but I don’t qualify for it. Everything for them is covered (doctor/dentist visits, emergency room visits and medications), but I can’t afford to go to the doctor,” Messenger said.

Another Eau Claire resident who said he would prefer to remain anonymous said he is getting ready to retire soon and really counts on such Eau Claire resources as the Community Table, a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing hot and healthy meals to those in need to help them make it through the week sometimes.

“I am a journeyman electrician by trade, and through the military I became an electrician. I did five years of college and 300 hours of night class, and I don’t get nothing,” the resident said. “I am about ready to retire at 55, I’ll be 55 in February,”

United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley does have its own resource help and assistance for the community and for those who may need help. In the last year alone over 26,000 community members have accessed its basic needs programs.

Messenger said she thought federal poverty guidelines could be more realistic about the true cost of living.


“It is not possible for me to spend $300 a month on insurance, or even day care. When it was just myself and my son, I was waitressing and he was in day care,” Messenger said. “Even with ‘assistance,’ it cost $140 a week for childcare — $560 a month, which was more than my rent at the time,”


United Way’s hope is that the ALICE population will be less hidden in the future, and that even more assistance will be available in the future.