Points of View

ALICE: Who’s Struggling to Survive in West Michigan

Alex Andrews

Who is ALICE?

Throughout West Michigan, as with the rest of the country, there are many families who have trouble financing their basic necessities, despite having one or both householders working. Although they may be above the federally-established poverty line, these families are still struggling to afford basic things like housing, child care, food, health care, and transportation — presenting barriers to employment which further exacerbate the hardships endured by these struggling households. 


What I have just described are families who are considered ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed. This is a term first introduced by the United Way in 2009, working with a team in New Jersey to more accurately identify those families who were working, but still struggling to cover their expenses. Since then, eighteen states have adopted the ALICE methodology to assess their populations through data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. 


Using this data, the ALICE project is able to create Survival and Sustainable budgets for households of specific sizes and structures, and tailor those budgets to the cost of living associated with geographies as small as counties, cities, or townships. In doing this, ALICE can provide a picture of the Economic Viability of an area, including Housing Affordability, Job Opportunities, and Community Support. 


What does the data tell us?

In Michigan, the latest ALICE report was released in 2017 with Census data captured in 2015, and portrayed that statewide, 40 percent of Michigan households fell below the Survival Budget Threshold. This would suggest that out of every ten Michigan households, there were four who could not afford either rent, food, clothing, or any of the other basic survival categories just four years ago. With respect to the 13-county West Michigan region, this number is slightly lower, with just over 39 percent of households falling short of a Survival budget throughout our region. 


Access the full report to see how your county compares: https://www.unitedwayalice.org/home


What can employers do?

Although this is a population which traditionally encounters many barriers to maintaining middle-class employment, there are many initiatives occurring throughout the region to help ensure that no household goes without the resources they need to survive. 


Several employers in West Michigan are adopting innovative approaches to help foster a sustainable employment environment for their employees. One such effort places emphasis on establishing a strong company culture of providing employees opportunities for upward mobility, achieved through hosting financial empowerment classes intended to provide employees with the tools necessary to achieve their financial goals — which can range from buying a new house, establishing a college fund for children, or simply garnishing additional peace-of-mind for their family. These classes teach fundamental skills that may prove to be beneficial in an employee’s next role, but they also provide benefits to the employer through noticeable improvements in the areas of talent attraction, development, and retention. 


Another approach used by local employers provides associates with onsite assistance to help them understand and navigate the social programs they may be eligible for, in addition to providing employees with financial planning and legal services. On top of that, these employers recognize the barriers opposing a majority of their workforce and are currently working to alleviate them — particularly with respect to the challenges presented by lack of access to transportation and affordable childcare.   


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