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Traverse City Record-Eagle: Report highlights difficulty of balancing low wages, high living costs


TRAVERSE CITY — Jann Norton spends her days breathing in the distinct smell of well-loved books, but taking a deep breath when going to pay bills isn’t so easy.

Norton said she isn’t the only one — she hears the same story from many who wander into her Union Street used book shop, Bookie Joint.

It’s the same as it was two years ago, she said.

In 2017, Norton told the Record-Eagle that Traverse City is a special place, but keeping a business afloat downtown is tough. Getting ahead just doesn't happen because whenever a door looks like it’s about to open, some bill comes back more than expected, she said.

“My whole goal, truly — because everything else has been broken or destroyed — is just pay your bills. And I find it harder and harder to do it,” Norton said Friday.

She works seven days per week May through September, but often is only is making cents on the hour, Norton said.

“You find yourself doing pros and cons lists, making decisions you shouldn’t have to make,” she said.

The federal poverty level provides hard and fast numbers to define if someone is living in poverty. However, that leaves a population of people above that level, but not earning enough to afford the basic cost of living.

United Ways in 19 states, including Michigan, have given that population a name — ALICE.

“ALICE is the story of people who are so busy working that they don’t even have time to speak for themselves,” said Ranae McCauley, executive director of United Way of Northwest Michigan.

Michigan Association of United Ways officials released the 2019 ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Report on March 20. It’s the third ALICE report — the first was issued in 2014 and an update released in 2017. The 2019 pulls statistics collected by a team of researchers and a Michigan Research Advisory Committee.

As of 2017, an average of 27 percent of Grand Traverse area households are ALICE, while another 11.2 percent live in poverty — 38.2 percent total, according to the report.

The ALICE report suggests that the area is a micro-representation of the state as a whole, McCauley said. Of Michigan’s 3.9 million households, 14 percent lived in poverty and 29 percent were ALICE, the report states.

“If you live in poverty, there may be assistance available for you,” McCauley said. “If you’re ALICE, you’re very likely just over the threshold for help. So you’ve reached a benefit cliff.

“That benefit cliff really brings them back,” she added. “Now there’s no housing or utility or child care assistance. And, of course, health insurance costs need to be factored in as well.”

Housing, child care and transportation are three of the biggest costs in the “household survival budget” listed in the report.

The report states that a family of two adults, an infant and a preschool-aged child living in Grand Traverse County would have an estimated annual living cost of $63,732, including monthly expenses of $878 for housing — including utilities, $1,131 for child care and $679 for transportation.

McCauley said the numbers are extremely conservative, with the goal of not inflating it to an unbelievable degree. When she does presentations, however, she has attendees fill in a blank budget and every time the total is more than what the ALICE report shows, she said.

The budget doesn’t include things like paying off college loans, putting money in savings for things like a car repair, McCauley said.

Not having the money to pay for those unexpected incidentals are the type of stories heard at the Father Fred Foundation, said Elaine Keaton, the organization's advancement manager.

Many or most of those who utilize the services Father Fred provides — food, clothing, household goods and financial assistance — are ALICE, she said. They’re working as hard as they can, but, because of other expenses, they can’t make ends meet, Keaton said.

“That’s what happens. It’s not just one thing — it’s two, three, four things,” Keaton said. “People have a misconception that people who come here aren’t working and that’s not the case.”