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Traverse City Record-Eagle: Editorial: One tiny catastrophe is all it takes for many folks

A $750 car repair bill to keep your beater running a few more months.

The $1,000 to pay off the medical insurance deductible after a spill on the ice injury.

The $1,500/month daycare bill for the youngest because your old childcare place closed and you’re just lucky to have a spot.

These aren’t typhoons or earthquakes. People contending with war, famine and disaster would scoff at the scope of these issues.

But that’s just it — too many of us are living at a rate when these seemingly small problems can tip into big ones.

A big chunk of us — 27 percent of Grand Traverse area households — toil at the edge of the poverty line. This group named — “ALICE” for the acronym Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed — is a focal point for United Way organizations in Michigan and 18 other states.

ALICE makes too much to qualify for government assistance, but not enough to avoid making tough decisions about which bills to pay.

She’s in survival mode — the lion’s share of income funnels off to housing, child care and transportation, leaving nothing to pay down debt much less save.

And as she tiptoes across the high wire, does so without a safety net and without an umbrella. It won’t take much to make her fall.

That more than a quarter of the Grand Traverse population lives like this shouldn’t surprise anyone — or that another 11 percent lives beneath that line.

We know what it costs to live here — a lot.

Specifically, a Grand Traverse County household of four — two adults, an infant and a preschool-aged child — need an estimated annual living cost of $63,732, including monthly expenses of $878 for housing, $1,131 for child care and $679 for transportation.

These are conservative estimates, says United Way of Northwest Michigan Executive Director Renae McCauley. But it means the couple must make at least $30 an hour between them, after taxes.

Networks Northwest reports that between 2010 and 2017, the basic cost of household expenses increased by 27 percent for a family of four. Wages in Michigan grew 14 percent.

Here in the region, they grew 13 percent.

That “view of the bay” comes at a premium. We think our number of lakefront properties and non-homestead property tax payers may skew our numbers into looking better than they are.

The second half of our infamous adage “ ... for half the pay” creates a revolving workforce of struggling people and “help wanted” signs.

Just ask ALICE.

Finding the solutions are complicated and political, as the rise in health care costs and the lack of tax credits are seen as two primary contributors to the ALICE plight.

Michigan Association of United Ways recommends moving the line up — especially as it relates to the child-care subsidy cap.

Crains Detroit Business reported that Michigan was home to the lowest income-eligibility level for child care in the nation 2016. Gov. Rick Snyder increased the eligibility from 125 percent of the poverty line to 130 percent, but United Way is pushing for more.

On a local level, employers should recognize the cost of living challenges of their employees relates directly to the trouble of finding workers, much less good ones who stick around, raise families and strengthen our community.

Our community is already generous and strong — Crowd-sourced emergency fund campaigns do very well here. But why do we need so many?

We rely heavily on ALICE. It’s time to figure out what we can do to fortify this fragile group, for it doesn’t take much to break it.