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Washtenaw United: New ALICE report shows growing number of working poor in Washtenaw County

Bridget Herrmann
United Way of Washtenaw County


As the Vice President for Impact & Advocacy at United Way of Washtenaw County, Bridget is responsible for establishing, leading, and executing United Way’s community impact agenda of grant making, public policy advocacy, and community partnerships. She works to find the full expression of United Way's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in its work. Her employment with United Way has taken her from Florida to Washington and now, Michigan. Originally from Miami, FL, she now calls herself a Michigander after surviving nine winters.


David Fair: Poverty remains a significant issue in Washtenaw County, even among those who are employed. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. The latest ALICE study shows some astonishing figures. Now, ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. Essentially, it means earning more than the federal poverty level, but not enough to pay for the basics in the communities where people live. Here to help us better identify the problem and where improvements can be made is Bridget Herrmann. Bridget is the Vice President of Impact and Advocacy for the United Way of Washtenaw County, and I'm so glad you could make time to help us get a better understanding today, Bridget.

Bridget Herrmann: Thanks for having me on, David.

David Fair: The latest ALICE report covers the years 2019 through 2021. Of course, that is a big part of the pandemic. In 2019, the federal poverty level for a single person was $12,490. For a family of four, it was $25,750. In 2021, two full years later, it really hadn't gone up much. For a single person, up to $12,880. And for a family of four, just up to $26,500. If you're working around those levels, you would have a very difficult time just paying for housing, let alone anything else, right?

Bridget Herrmann: Indeed, that is the case, David. And we know that, in Washtenaw County in particular, this is one of the most desirable places to live and work in our state. And with that desire comes increased cost of living and and the cost of basic needs.

David Fair: There are almost 150,000 households in Washtenaw County, or at least there were in this most recent reporting period of ALICE. How many fall into this ALICE category?

Bridget Herrmann: The latest numbers show us that for people who are ALICE, those are households that are ALICE, 27%--so nearly a third of households--earned above the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford the basics in Washtenaw County. And importantly, and most disturbingly, this is a significant jump. Prior to the pandemic, this number was at 19%.

David Fair: And that doesn't even include the unemployed, right?

Bridget Herrmann: It does not. These are families who are working. But, fundamentally, what these data show us is that there's a mismatch between the cost of living and what many jobs in Washtenaw County pay.

David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation with Bridget Herrmann continues on 89 one WEMU. Bridget is vice president of the United Way of Washtenaw County. We often talk about that U.S. 23 divides. Is it fair to say, Bridget, that the most impacted are on the east side of that divide?

Bridget Herrmann: You know, when you look at the ALICE data, when you look at that, you can also look at the geographic disparity. So, yeah, that does play out. You know, as an example. 68% of households in the city of Ypsilanti are either ALICE or living below the poverty level. In the city of Ann Arbor, it's 43%. These are really high percentages that they're almost half or the majority of people living in in a given geography are struggling to meet their basic needs.

David Fair: And regardless of where you are, are people of color more impacted?

Bridget Herrmann: What the data show us is that, disproportionately, Black and Hispanic or Latinx households are more likely to be ALICE or living under the poverty level. The least impacted are those who identify as Asian American Pacific Islanders or white people in Washtenaw County.

David Fair: So, what causes have we identified for helping create and even expand income disparities in our community?

Bridget Herrmann: You know, David, when we look at these data, what it really does is it illuminates the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though we know that, during that time period, there was unprecedented federal aid and support, cash and non-cash flowing to people in our country and to Washtenaw County, but there were also significant changes in workforce and employment status. And so, even with that unprecedented level of support that was flowing to people in our community, we see the impacts of the pandemic, we see the impacts of changes in employment status and the way that people work, and we see the impact. So, what this further shows us is at the root causes that are at play. We see it as systemic racism. We see it as the differential access to opportunity and these root cause forces. And they're showing up in these data in this way.

David Fair: We continually read, since the pandemic started, how many jobs are open and people aren't applying from them and that people don't want to work anymore. A lot of those jobs do require some level of training or education that access to opportunity is not always there to provide entrance into those positions. Am I right?

Bridget Herrmann: Yeah. You know, just to speak a little bit further about that mismatch between, you know, the cost of living and what jobs pay, we know that in the state of Michigan, 30% of retail salespeople--that's the most common occupation in Michigan--are below the ALICE threshold, right? And that's the most common occupation. We can extrapolate that in Washtenaw County to not only retail sales people, but also those working in hospitality, those working as home health aides, those working as teachers' aides. These are full time job opportunities, but they're not paying enough to help people stay adequately housed and to feed their families, take care of medical bills, and, of course, cover the cost of transportation, which is another issue of inequity that's rising to the fore in this economy.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with United Way of Washtenaw County Vice President Bridget Herrmann on WEMU's Washtenaw United. And, Bridget, how long have you been working on equity and opportunity issues in Washtenaw County now?

Bridget Herrmann: We really turned our attention to this in 2016. So, this was before the pandemic when we realized that, one, poverty was being experienced by people in Washtenaw County, and we needed to illuminate that and, really, over the last couple of years, focusing on racial inequity as a root cause of the difference in opportunity that people experience. And that contributes to people's difference in living their best life possible.

David Fair: So, in the seven years that the United Way has become focused on these particular issues, is the situation better or worse today?

Bridget Herrmann: Well, David, unfortunately, the number of people who are experiencing financial hardship has increased. And it's increased significantly since 2019. So, we saw that percentage of people in Washtenaw County who were ALICE floated around the 19% threshold since we began collecting data on this in 2010. Similarly, the poverty level has floated between 10 and 12%. But really, we were pretty shocked to see that number jump for ALICE households from 19 to 27%--so a third of folks. And like you mentioned before, these are people who are working. They are employed, they are supporting themselves, they are contributing to the local economy, and they can't quite make ends meet.

David Fair: So, we have nonprofits working on it. We have governmental units working on it. How much is it going to take a even more broad partnership to include major corporations, small businesses, in order to start bringing about the meaningful change in access to opportunity and more equitable outcomes?

Bridget Herrmann: Yeah, I appreciate you broadening that lend because this is really the result of economic choices being made, right? Everybody is a contributor who can either help or hinder how we fare as a community and how we fare as a collective, right? These are the choices, not only, you know, oftentimes, we look to government to say, "Well, it's policy choices." And certainly, it is policy choices. It's policy choices around non-cash supports and the kinds of economic drivers and incentives that governments create at the local and state level. But it's also the purview of local employers, right, to say we're going to commit to paying people no less than such and such amount, right? And so, I think that all of us have a role to play as employers, as taxpayers, to hold people accountable. It cannot always fall. We kind of default to the human services sector to say, "Well, the social safety net will take care of it." It's an all-of-us issue. We all have a role to play in helping to shape our community and contributing to those economic choices that are being made that are contributing to more people living here and not being able to make ends meet for their families.

David Fair: And as we look at those roles that need to be played, it has been said change really begins at home. So, if we stop pointing fingers outwardly and look at what we're doing individually, what actions can we take in our homes, in our families that will help provide a more strong foundation for a better, equitable and accessible Washtenaw County?

Bridget Herrmann: Yeah. I mean, I always like to be...that's a great question, David. I get familiar with your local elected officials, right, and ask them what is their position on supporting households that are ALICE and making sure that every that Washtenaw County is a place where everybody has the chance to live, work, play and thrive, right? The next thing that comes to mind is to do this consciously where you spend your money, right? There are some fabulous employers here in Washtenaw County who are committed to living wage employment, and that goes to restaurant owners, to shop owners. And so, thinking intentionally and asking questions around how they support their staff. I think that that's another thing that individuals can do. And the third thing is to look at the local nonprofit sector, particularly the human services sector, right? They are there holding the front line, and they are the floor that make sure that nobody falls through the cracks. And so, familiarizing yourself with our local human services sector and supporting them is integral to ensuring that there is a safety net in place beyond, you know, the very bottom of an of the day. So, those are some three actions that folks can take. Top of mind for me.

David Fair: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today and providing the insight that you have, Bridget.

Bridget Herrmann: Thank you, David. All of that data that you and I have discussed is available on the United Way website. The data is available at the county level, by legislative district, at the national level. You can really dig in and better understand the community in which you're living in Washtenaw County.

David Fair: That is United Way of Washtenaw County Vice President of Impact and Advocacy Bridget Herrmann filling us in on the details of the latest ALICE report and its impact on Washtenaw County. And for more information, you can visit our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you linked everywhere you need to go. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


United for ALICE

2021 ALICE Washtenaw County Report


We all know people who are ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — earning more than the Federal Poverty Level, but not enough to afford the basics where they live. ALICE workers were celebrated as essential heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet they do not earn enough to support their own families.

ALICE households and households in poverty are forced to make tough choices, such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent — choices that have long-term consequences not only for their families, but for all.

The latest United for ALICE data covers the period of 2019-2021 and calculates the cost of household essentials for all counties in Michigan. These costs, outlined in the Household Survival Budget, are calculated for various household sizes and compositions.

Of Washtenaw County’s 149,133 households in 2021…

  • 13%  (19,395) earned below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL)
  • 27% (39,730) were ALICE, in households that earned above the FPL but not enough to afford the basics in the communities where they live (a significant jump from 19%)
  • Together, 40% of households in Washtenaw were below the ALICE Threshold (source:2021 ALICE Washtenaw County snapshot)

Here are some important observations about the working families experiencing financial hardship:

  • ALICE is in every community our state and Washtenaw County is no different.  ALICE lives in rural, urban, and suburban areas.
  • ALICE Households are Diverse, but Financial Hardship is Not Equally Distributed
    • Black and Latinx/Hispanic households are disproportionately represented among ALICE.  Asian households in our County are least likely to be ALICE.
    • This inequity also plays out geographically.  As an example, 68% of households in the City of Ypsilanti are either ALICE or living below the poverty level; in the city of Ann Arbor, it’s 43%.
  • ALICE Works Hard, But It’s Not Enough
    • A key contributor to the number of ALICE households in Michigan is the fundamental mismatch between the cost of living and what jobs pay. For example, 30% of Retail Salespersons (the most common occupation in Michigan) were below the ALICE Threshold in 2021. In Washtenaw County this is no different. 
  • A catalyst for change, the ALICE research calls us all to action because it illuminates the inequitable impacts of economic choices being shaped through, as an example, salaries/wages, as well as public policies at the local, state and federal levels.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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