LIVING IN THE MARGINS, MICHIGAN FAMILIES FIGHT TO STAY AFLOAT

LIVING IN THE MARGINS, MICHIGAN FAMILIES FIGHT TO STAY AFLOAT

When she spoke at the recent ALICE event in Lansing, Beaverton’s Hope Cumbee lent a powerful voice to the plight of the state’s working poor.  (Photo courtesy of Steve Jessmore/MAUW.)

In today’s economy, there’s an expanding number of people who make too much money working to receive assistance, but sometimes barely enough to get by, and definitely not enough to get ahead. And according to a new study, that number in Michigan is 29 percent of the population.

Hope Cumbee of Beaverton is one such example. Her husband is a self-employed truck driver whose long hours keep him away from home for all but about four days a month, Cumbee said, and the expenses attached to driving a truck are high enough by themselves. But when those bills are combined with everyday life’s standard expenses alongside those of caring for a young child, it’s overwhelming.

Cumbee was a featured speaker at a recent press event held by the Michigan Association of United Ways, which publishes the Asset Limited, Income Restrained, Employed (ALICE) report. With 29 percent of the state’s population falling into that category of the working poor (and another 14 percent living in federally-defined poverty for a toal of 1.66 million people), there are no easy solutions – either to fix the large-scale problem for the working poor, or for local families like Cumbee’s, who are fighting from paycheck to paycheck.

“When my son needed his first round of vaccinations, I went to the health department and found out that without health insurance, his shots were $500,” Cumbee told the crowd at ALICE Legislative Action Day, held March 20 in Lansing. “I also found out that because of our income, we weren’t eligible for traditional assistance. I was devastated; I stood in the lobby and sobbed.”

The ALICE event included a large contingent of local health and human service representatives, including Amy Pratt, who serves as the Great Start Collaborative Coordinator for the Clare-Gladwin Regional Education Service District, and Sarah Kile, Executive Director of 2-1-1 Northeast Michigan and a CGRESD board member.

“The ALICE report is a sad confirmation of what those of us who work with struggling families already knew – that there are far too many of our friends and neighbors fighting against poverty in Michigan,” Pratt said. “Hope is a great example – her family is by no means looking for a handout, but for the three most difficult issues facing the working poor, which are health insurance, childcare and housing, it’s just about impossible to earn enough to pull ahead far enough to get out of that economic danger zone.”

Kile said United Ways across the country are working to force this issue into the spotlight with the hopes of giving ALICE households a chance to achieve financial stability.

“If 43 percent of our state’s population is either in the poverty category or, like Hope’s family, working to survive with limited or no assistance, we obviously need to do better,” Kile said. “This is not a situation where we can wave a magic wand and make it go away. We need everybody on board working to solve this – legislators, educators, business and social services, pulling together in the same direction and making a long-term change to a systemic crisis.”

While her son was ultimately able to receive his shots, Cumbee said that scenario is ongoing and all too common for families in similar situations across the state.

“There are times when the truck breaks down or the pump in our well goes out, and we have to take out a loan for repairs, and that’s when we fall behind, like so many other blue collar families do,” she told the crowd. “Without traditional benefits or other assistance when bad things happen, we don’t have a safety net – we just fall. And we pick ourselves back up, but most of the time we end up with even more bills.”

Cumbee’s appearance at ALICE Legislative Action Day lent a powerful voice to the struggle of families across Michigan, and she implored the assembled crowd to work toward a solution.

“I’m asking you to consider those families like mine, who work very hard but are not eligible for traditional assistance,” she said. “For most of us, we would never ask for a handout, but we could use an occasional hand up.”


ABOUT CLARE-GLADWIN RESD’S GREAT START COLLABORATIVE: Every child deserves a great start in order to achieve success in school and in life. The Clare-Gladwin Great Start Collaborative is a group of local parents, service providers, business professionals and leaders in the community who work together to build, implement and continuously improve the network of public and private supports and services for young children and their families. We know more now than ever before about the importance of early childhood experiences and the impact the quality of those experiences can have on the child’s lifelong health, happiness, and success. To learn more, visit www.ClareGladwinGreatStart.com.
 
To get involved or to learn more about MAUW’s ALICE Report, visit www.uwmich.org/alice.

Rusty Govitz