Financial insecurity ranks high in county

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JANESVILLE -Forty-two percent of households in Rock County are living on the edge of financial insecurity, according to a report conducted by United Way of Wisconsin.

The report was conducted through the United Way of Wisconsin's Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) initiative. The report uses data from 2010 to 2016, finding that 11 percent of Rock County households live in poverty, while 31 percent can be categorized as ALICE: people earning income above the federal poverty level but still struggling to afford basic needs like health care, transportation and food.

United Way Blackhawk Region President and CEO Mary Fanning-Penny said this means more than 63,000 households in Rock County are experiencing financial struggles. According to the report, the 2016 median household income was $50,729, and the state average was $56,811.

"It's disheartening to see the data of how many households and families in the community are struggling to survive," Fanning-Penny said. "They may be one paycheck or unanticipated event away from crisis."

She said the local chapter of United Way is collaborating with United Way chapters across the state to shed light on this issue.

"The issue of poverty of financial instability isn't easily solved," Fanning-Penny said. "It's a complex issue that requires complex solutions."

For example, she said one of the broader issues affecting those in poverty is the cost of living continues to increase, while wages may stay stagnant.

In the 2018-2019 grant cycle, Fanning-Penny said United Way Blackhawk Region invested more than $1.09 million in 30 local programs that work specifically on the issue of financial stability. United Way also offers its 2-1-1 information and referral helpline available 24/7 to provide resources to struggling community members in need.

Fanning-Penny said thus far for the first and second quarter of 2018 there have been more than 1,500 calls, and people's top needs included rental and energy assistance, community shelters and food pantries.

Nearby counties including Walworth, Green, Jefferson and Dane were all reported to have a lower combined ALICE and poverty rate.

In Walworth County, out of 40,039 households, 39 percent are living on the edge of financial insecurity. In Green County, out of 14,772 households, 34 percent face a combined ALICE and poverty rate. Jefferson County has a ALICE/poverty rate of 37 percent out of 32,378 households. Dane County has a ALICE/poverty rate of 31 percent out of 217,506 households.

Statewide, the report found that over 870,000 Wisconsin households, or 37.5 percent, fall under either the ALICE or poverty threshold. This includes one-third of households with children.

The report states that 62 percent of Wisconsin jobs pay less than $20 an hour, and at least 51 percent of Wisconsin households do not have enough money saved to cover expenses for three months.

United Way of Wisconsin Executive Director Charlene Mouille said in a press release the organization is focused on providing a basic foundation in health, education and financial stability to help improve the lives of both ALICE households and those in poverty, for the long-term benefit of the wider community.

"Our primary goal is to help change the perception of ALICE," Mouille said. "These are not stereotypically 'poor' people, but rather our friends and neighbors who hold paying jobs but can't keep up with the increasing cost of basic living in Wisconsin. It's important for us to understand that hardship goes beyond the limits of race, age and geography."

In terms of employment, Rock County had an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent in July, down from 3.7 percent in June and down from 3.6 percent in July of 2017.

The statewide unemployment rate was 2.9 percent in July, unchanged from June, but down from 3.3 percent in July of 2017. July marks the sixth consecutive month where Wisconsin's jobless rate has been below 3 percent.

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