Written by Brad Karger
In Marathon County, about 10% of our residents live in poverty and another 31% earn more than the federal poverty level but still struggle to afford basic needs (ALICE Study of Financial Hardship, Third Cohort, 2016–2017).
In 2016, I participated in a poverty simulation (much like that described in a recent article, if you’d like more details about how a poverty simulation works).
I brought my middle-class sensibilities and my Master’s degree into the room with me for the simulation, expecting one result, but I got another. And I learned something important about myself in the process:
I needed to stop being so judgmental about low-income people.
Even with my advanced degree and know-how, when starting the simulation from a place where I had a job that didn’t earn enough to get by, I couldn’t do any better to get myself out of simulated poverty than these people do in real life! In fact, I probably didn’t even do as well as most of them do…
Just to give you a few examples of decisions I made in this poverty simulation exercise that I didn’t want to make, but that I felt I had no better choice:
- I moved my kids from a high-quality daycare provider and relied on an inexperienced relative to care for them instead.
- I lost my job because my car wasn’t working and I hadn’t set any money aside for repairs, so I didn’t have transportation to get to work.
- I postponed preventative health care.
And to top it off:
- I took out a payday loan to help me with my immediate financial needs!
I was MISERABLE during the simulation, constantly checking my watch and hoping the exercise would end soon. The angst and anguish were taking their toll on me. I wasn’t making good decisions — and I knew it, but I couldn’t think what else to do under the pressure and time constraints.
When the exercise was over, I was never so glad to return to my middle-class life and comforts.
Living in poverty — even simulated poverty — isn’t easy.
Last year, United Way of Marathon County introduced me to the term “ALICE”:
- Asset Limited
- Income Constrained
Before learning this term, I would have referred to people below ALICE Income Threshold as “working poor.” These are people, mostly in the service industry, whom we interact with regularly, such as:
- The waitress at your favorite restaurant
- The home-health aide who makes it possible for your elderly neighbor to stay in her home
- The teller at your bank
- The cashier at your grocery store
Certainly, all the people in these job classifications are not “poor” or even “working poor,” since some have other sources of household income. But many people working in jobs like these fall below the ALICE Income Threshold.
So, what’s the solution to help get these people out of poverty?
We need to create more skilled workers and more higher wage jobs.
But the solution is not that easy…
Technology and globalization have shifted demand away from middle-wage jobs. In fact, the United Way of Wisconsin’s ALICE Report states that the Wisconsin economy is now more dependent on low-paying service jobs and that occupations with projected job growth have low wages and require minimal education.
Furthermore, consider these statements reported by B.C. Kowalski in a recent City Pages interview with Dave Eckmann, CEO of the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce:
- Based on current trends, only 17% of new jobs here [Wausau Metro Area] in the next 10 years will require a 4-year degree.
- By 2020, 35% of jobs in the U.S. will require a 4-year degree.
- A high school diploma or less is all that is needed for nearly 75% of the new local jobs, according to the latest LIFE Report by the United Way of Marathon County.
These startling statistics lead me to conclude that ALICE families are not a problem likely to go away as the labor market tightens because of Baby Boomer retirements. ALICE workers are a problem that’s going to stay with us until we make some fundamental shifts.
So, what kind of shifts am I talking about?
On the political stage, I’ve heard politicians and community activists call for increases in social programs like Medicaid, childcare assistance, public subsidies for health insurance, energy assistance, and so on, to better help families cover the gap between their income and basic needs. A lot of the same people advocate for a $15 minimum wage like they have in Seattle, WA.
These might be great ideas, but I can’t see either happening in Marathon County any time soon.
I certainly can’t offer any sweeping solutions to financial hardship, but I do have some real ideas at the local level to try to turn this negative trend around:
- We need the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (UWSP) to deliver a great educational product and prepare students for employment in our local industries so we can recruit its graduates to fill jobs right here in Central Wisconsin. Additionally, as UWSP assumes control of UW–Marathon County, it needs to expand access to people who are not fully prepared for college. I’m talking about students who are often economically disadvantaged and enter college with weak academic skills or too little information or support to succeed on their own but are plenty smart enough to succeed in college. We need UWSP to provide assistance so that these young people can overcome their barriers and help us build a pool of skilled workers to fill higher wage jobs. More than ever, no one can be left behind.
- We need for MCDEVCO, a non-profit economic development agency funded by the County, to focus its efforts on business creation and expansions that create higher wage jobs. Everyone gets excited when a new hotel or restaurant opens, but the hospitality industry has more low-paid service workers than it does skilled workers. Advanced manufacturing, health care, and professional services (legal, accounting) are industries that will typically drive wages up. With limited resources available, we need MCDEVCO to give priority to businesses that will help us raise median incomes, not reduce them.
- We already have a tremendously successful technical college, Northcentral Technical College (NTC), which focuses on the workforce needs of employers in our region. NTC needs to keep doing what they’ve been doing but be careful that they don’t train students too narrowly. We need NTC students to be educated for the jobs of the present, and also have the capacity to adapt to the skills that will be needed in the future.
- Businesses in Marathon County could do themselves and our community a lot of good by creating or expanding their apprenticeship programs and providing tuition reimbursement for existing employees. Apprentices can then come to imagine their career starting here in Marathon County. Tuition-reimbursement for existing workers to obtain additional education or training would mean these local workers can assume more responsibility, move up in a company, and fill key positions. Recruiting skilled workers to come to Marathon County — and then retaining them — will be key to business success. Business investments in people can make a difference!
I don’t know if all these ideas added together equate to a solution to reduce economic hardship in Marathon County. I do, however, know that business, government, and higher education working together is a good place to start.
Just doing what we’ve always done is not a good option.
Already 41% of our County residents struggle to meet basic needs. Having even more people in the future taking risky chances and making short-sighted decisions can’t be good for families and it can’t be good for communities.
The work of increasing the skills of our workforce and supporting the creation of higher paying jobs is not going to be easy. But if it’s not done — and done well — Marathon County will become less prosperous and become a much less attractive place in which to live, work, play, and do business.
So, do us all a favor…
There are several things that can be done to improve our economy and to build a community where prosperity is achievable.
After you read the report…
Think about what YOU can do to make a positive contribution in our local community — even if it’s small — and maybe together we can build momentum for some BIG changes that will benefit us all!
Kowalski, B. C. (2018, March 1–8). Business of the UW merger. City Pages, pp. 5–6.
United Way of Wisconsin. (2016–2017). ALICE Study of Financial Hardship, Third Cohort. Available at: http://www.unitedwaymc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/ALICE.pdf
Marathon County Administrator
In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $165 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday. Email Brad Karger.
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