In the shadow of Dane County’s booming technology sector and low unemployment rate, more than two out of every five households don’t make enough money to meet basic living expenses, a new study has found.
A report released Wednesday by the United Way of Wisconsin found that 41 percent or 86,855 of 211,842 Dane County households are unable to make ends meet or cover basic living expenses, including housing, child care, food, transportation and health care. This nearly matches the overall state number of 42 percent or 960,131 of 2.3 million households detailed in the United Way ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Study.
The number was alarming to Charlene Mouille, executive director of United Way of Wisconsin. The state has seen jobless rates at around 4 percent in recent years, so many are working.
“We know people are struggling,” Mouille said. She bases that on activity from the 211 Helpline Center, which connects people to needed resources.
Requests for assistance with food has seen the most activity, Mouille said.
“People have been asking how they can access free food or food resources,” she said.
Mouielle said many of these people are employed but just are not earning enough to pay for living expenses.
“It may be someone sitting or standing next to you on the sidelines at a soccer game or your child care teacher or the health technician,” she said.
The findings of United Way researchers are based on examining federal, state and municipal data from 2014 and comparing it with data from 2007, 2010 and 2012 to examine conditions before and after the recession.
The methodology was originally developed by United Way of New Jersey and Rutgers University.
It took about six months to analyze Wisconsin data and complete the report, which examines the state and each county.
United Way hopes the report’s findings will drive conversations across the state and encourage communities to find solutions to help those in need.
The report suggests the cost of basic annual household expenses in Wisconsin is more than most jobs can support.
A typical household survival budget — covering basic expenses without regard for savings — for a family of four is estimated at $54,804 in the state. The state’s median household income is $52,622.
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The survival budget for a single adult in Wisconsin is $23,196, the report said.
In Dane County, the survival budget for a family of four is $69,204 and $28,608 for a single adult.
The report estimates that a stable household budget for a family of four in Wisconsin — one that enables not just survival but the ability to save — is $102,696. A single adult would require $28,968.
“Someone in a stable household budget situation, may be able to withstand a job loss or some other life storm,” Mouille said. “It’s the people on the survival budget who are one major expense away from trouble.”
Deedra Atkinson, vice president of community impact and strategy for United Way of Dane County, said knowing what many people are facing helps the agency focus its efforts.
“(The report) gives us an understanding of what pressures people are facing,” she said. “We knew we weren’t immune to it.”
The report found that 65 percent of all jobs in Wisconsin pay less than $20 an hour — so less than about $40,000 annually if working full time.
Mouille said United Way organizations around the state have been assisting in workforce development efforts to help people improve their skills to get into better-paying jobs.
United Way-supported groups also provide an array of services, including tax preparation, to assist low-income residents find tax credits and financial advisers who can guide in budget planning to stretch dollars further.
In Dane County, Atkinson said her agency works with more than 50 partners through its HIRE initiative, which has a goal of helping people move out of poverty into family-supporting jobs.
The Health Connect program in Dane County also provides assistance to qualified individuals so they can pay for health insurance premiums.
Programs also are available to help low-income parents find child care that can work within their budgets and accommodate job schedules.
“We know people who are living at or near poverty level want a better life and we want to help them be successful,” Atkinson said.