The choices facing nearly two-thirds of Black households in Michigan are stark and unrelenting, with many forced to choose between paying for a prescription or food, a utility bill or rent.
This is not news to Shannon Blackmon-Gardner as she responds to a recent analysis by the Michigan Association of United Ways showing 63 percent of Black households statewide are unable to make ends meet.
“For me, being a person of color, it’s not new news,” said Blackmon-Gardner, vice president of community impact with the Grand Rapids-based Heart of West Michigan United Way. “It is new as we put it out to the community. Poverty and racism have been connected since the beginning. I see it every day.”
She and others in the nonprofit sector now aim to “really drill this down and extrapolate the information and put it out into communities,” she said.
While the detailed data about Black households are released in a report every other year, this year’s analysis coincidentally comes at a time of civil unrest across the U.S., she said.
The information about the disproportionately high number of Black families who are struggling to make ends meet is part of the statewide United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) data. The findings indicate that 40 percent of all Michigan households did not earn enough to cover basic expenses in 2018, including housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and a basic smartphone plan.
The 63 percent of Black households falling below the ALICE threshold was nearly double that of white households, at just 36 percent.
Households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level but less than the basic cost of living represent the ALICE threshold. The federal poverty guidelines for a family of four in Michigan is $24,600, and the ALICE threshold for a four-person household with an infant and a preschool-age child is $61,000, according to the Michigan Association of United Ways.
The group releases a study on the condition of Michigan’s working families, which it has dubbed ALICE households, every two years. The “ALICE and Black Households Data” is an analysis of new data points from 2018, said Mike Larson, president and CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways.
“Many of us assume there is an inequity issue around these things, but to have this data makes it clearer and really drives it home,” Larson said. “We use ALICE data to help us dive deeper. It helps people to understand and better educate themselves and others and transforms our organizations to tailor our work around this new information. … Many of them are using it strategically to focus on issues in their community.”
This latest ALICE report is “clearly showing inequities that are deeply rooted in our system,” Blackmon-Gardner said.
“I think one of the factors is unemployment,” she said. “We know many people were losing their jobs prior to COVID, and COVID increased those numbers.”
As the pandemic made its way into the U.S., United Ways in Michigan established coronavirus relief funds that met the immediate needs of those who had been struggling and those who hadn’t sought assistance before. Larson said the groups raised and distributed more than $25 million statewide.
The Heart of West Michigan’s fund began in March and was discontinued in June. In July, Kent County administrators asked the Heart of West Michigan United Way to administer $9.5 million received through the federal CARES Act to address ongoing immediate expenses of families in need.
Blackmon-Gardner said the philanthropic sector will have to study the data to ensure long-term stability for these families and individuals. While high unemployment will likely continue, she said expenses related to housing and transportation will increase, making it more of a challenge to meet these basic needs.
She and Larson noted a shift from identifying short-term fixes to envisioning what recovery looks like.
“The state and federal governments are not going to be able to fix the problem,” Larson said. “United Ways are making the shift and asking: How do we mobilize our resources as we move forward?”
“We are looking at how we can invest in those areas to make sure people are able to meet their basic needs,” Blackmon-Gardner said. “We’re focusing on those serving the highest percentage of Black and Brown individuals who are struggling. We are really trying to advocate for the importance of this. We’re doing all we can to meet this inequity.”
Early intervention, COVID disparities
Larson cites other issues such as inequities in education. He said the ability of a child to grow up and become a successful adult closely involves opportunities to learn and thrive. Yet disparities continue among households who have children graduating with high school diplomas, he said.
“If we can’t start to resolve things early on, we’re going to see them not being as successful as they get older,” Larson said. “Sixty-one percent of all jobs in Michigan pay less than $20 an hour. It’s really hard to raise a family of four with two little ones on $20 an hour. The reality is that this is not enough. These people are making tough choices every day and, in some cases, you’ve got people working two jobs just trying to make it.
“We’ve got some structural challenges that exist. At the same time, we’ve got to work further upstream to address these equity issues early on.”
Additional data confirm that COVID-19 has affected African Americans in Michigan at a much higher rate than other ethnicities in the state. This prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to create the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities in April to study the causes of those differences and recommend actions to address the historical and systemic inequities. According to the state, African Americans make up nearly 14 percent of Michigan’s population yet represent 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
Blackmon-Gardner said the Heart of West Michigan United Way — like United Ways throughout Michigan — has already been using information on racial inequality in its plans and is reinforcing its commitment to race and equity. However, the latest ALICE data are raising awareness and shifting attitudes to better meet the needs of minority communities.
Among the questions being asked: “How should we invest in these types of solutions so Black and Brown families can meet their basic needs?”
Blackmon-Gardner said the Heart of West Michigan is doing an equity-focused review of its grant applications and processes to “see if there are inequities. We want to make sure we’re not limiting or considering certain applications based on any type of identity markers that are ruling them out. We want to try to make sure we’re investing in areas with higher populations of Black or Brown individuals.”
Most United Ways have been doing work around diversity, equity, inclusion, and racism, Larson added.
“It’s always been our intent to get deeper into this,” he said. “There’s always been intent around this work, but we have to go a lot farther.”
For the Michigan Association of United Ways, this means getting the ALICE data into the hands of nonprofits and others in Michigan as a way to inform them “with the hope that it starts to change attitudes and changes the outcome of what’s currently happening,” Larson said. “We obviously use this data at the policy level with local, state and federal officials so they can look at policy shifts with issues impacting Black households. At the same time, we’re using it at the local level to inform local legislators and even for-profit businesses.”
Blackmon-Gardner said the ALICE data reflect inequities that have been going on for a long time.
“We’ve got to come together to advocate. We can’t work in silos anymore,” she said. “It’s about this community undoing racism and making sure communities we’re serving are thriving.
“COVID changed the way we operate, but with this data and the civil unrest that’s going on, we are making sure we’re focusing on being equitable for everybody. We’ve got to change that lens. It’s uncomfortable, but necessary.”
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