Are you one of many who think there is little to no poverty in Harbor Country? Over the next few weeks, I wish to educate you about the very real struggles of some of our neighbors. Every two years United Way completes a study called ALICE in Michigan (https://www.uwmich.org/alice). ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed and describes a significant portion of our neighbors who could be called “the working poor.” They are the folks who work part- or full-time in low wage jobs that often do not include any benefits. Some work more than one job to keep food on the table. They make just a bit more money than the federal poverty guidelines and often fall in the cracks for social supports like Medicaid and Food Stamps. They have absolutely no cushion should one emergency arise like a broken water heater, car repair or increase in their water bill.
There are 61,809 households in Berrien County, and 38 percent of them are below the federal poverty guidelines plus the “ALICE” segment just above them. Think about that. Over one-third of our county’s residents barely get by, even those who have jobs. They work as cashiers, nursing assistants, office clerks, retail sales, servers, security guards and laborers. They make our cup of morning joe and ring up our paddleboard purchases.
You have probably noticed all the “Help Wanted” signs around for these kinds of jobs. Why aren’t they getting filled? Accepting a low-wage, no benefit job might cost government benefits. A 60-year-old woman who has back problems is terrified to accept a low-wage, no benefit job because she needs Medicaid until she can qualify for Medicare. If she accepts a low-wage job, she is afraid that she won’t be able to afford coverage through the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and cannot take the risk of a major flareup of a back injury. Her decision is a rational one, not laziness.
Another single mother counts on monthly SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits to feed her kids, and if she makes much money at all, that amount will be drastically reduced. Her husband hasn’t paid child support in years. How much of her paycheck will go to childcare if she can find it? Her decision is a rational one, not laziness.
Did you know that there is an incredible lack of affordable childcare in Harbor Country? Neighbor by Neighbor struggled to help a single mother secure childcare while she worked and luckily enrolled her in New Buffalo’s day camp program. What will the mother do when the camp is over and school has not yet started? Trinity Lutheran School in Sawyer and Head Start in New Buffalo are the only preschools in Harbor Country, and they have waiting lists. As an aside, the vast majority of people who stayed home when schools went virtual during the pandemic were women. Many of those women had to leave their jobs and the household lost their income. They need to take care of their children until school starts again, so they are not accepting seasonal jobs yet. Their decisions are rational, not laziness.
Low-income households either can’t afford a vehicle plus plates, tags and insurance, or they can only afford older vehicles with lots of problems. Older vehicles often get poor gas mileage. They break down more often and repairs are very expensive. Put that together with the necessity of having a reliable car to get to and from work and you have a recipe for disasters. Many low-income people can’t get to and from work because of no car or a car that frequently breaks down. They get fired or have to quit. Are they lazy?
Service sector jobs introduce a level of risk from COVID exposure some workers do not want to take. Stores, restaurants, theaters and beaches opened up and there is no effective screening for whether a customer could transmit the disease. The Delta variant is growing in its coverage of the country and is more easily transmitted and deadlier. The decision not to work in a job with high risk of COVID exposure is rational, not laziness.
The seasonality of Harbor Country’s economy contributes to people living at or barely above poverty. Neighbor by Neighbor receives an increasing number of calls for help with rent and utilities starting November 1 through April 15 when people who worked during tourist season have no jobs. Harbor Country, like the rest of the country, needs good paying year-round jobs with health, dental, eye and retirement benefits. It seems patently unfair for anyone to work a full-time job much of their lives, just getting by, and then receive very low Social Security checks, keeping them in poverty. Wanting a good paying job with benefits is rational.
And finally, the temporarily more generous unemployment payments play a factor in the difficulty employers have filling local jobs. If I put myself in the shoes of someone who could work in a seasonal job for $9 per hour for 35 hours a week, my gross weekly income would be $315. My job might entail dealing with rude customers and cranky people standing in line carping about the wait. I might have to pay someone to watch my kids. If I can receive an unemployment check around the same amount – or even more – than what I would earn, I will make the rational decision to stay home. I am rational, not lazy.
In the next few weeks, I will write more about the hidden poverty in Harbor Country and the many factors that keep low-income people stuck. These include the lack of affordable housing, lack of public transportation, the digital divide, and the incredibly low Social Security payments to seniors and people with disabilities.