The number of Jefferson County residents experiencing poverty is increasing during the pandemic with more qualifying as homeless or housing insecure.
“We are seeing poverty across the county rise and estimate one in three Jefferson County residents is struggling to make ends meet,” said Amber Duddy, director of the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin Inc., citing statistics from ALICE, 2020.
With the contraction of the economy, job losses, salary cuts and health issues that the pandemic has wrought, area families who were already experiencing difficulties have been facing even greater challenges, Duddy said.
“What we see daily is that the people who were struggling the most before the pandemic are struggling even more now,” she said.
In Jefferson County, Duddy said this means seniors and children are especially vulnerable to the adverse effect of poverty during this pandemic.
Duddy said that while hard on everyone, the pandemic is particularly stripping away the meagre assets of those in poverty, making their lives even more uncertain and stressful.
“This pandemic will negatively impact the psycho-social development of our communities’ most vulnerable children, due in part to chronic stress, housing and food insecurity and (diminished) access to programs and services which could contribute to their positive development,” Duddy said.
While it’s hard to pull together statistics for the general population because many people who fall into the housing insecure category (re: couch surfers) don’t show up in government records. However, school districts are required to keep track of children they serve who fall into this category, so that’s a more comprehensive figure.
According to the most recent figures available for a full year (2018), the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction estimated there were 223 children experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness in Jefferson County.
Duddy said the Community Action Coalition receives about four calls per week from families or individuals who are newly homeless in Jefferson County.
“We estimate in a typical year, there are approximately 500 homeless or housing insecure people across the county, half of whom are children,” Duddy said.
Separately from the issue of homelessness, a significant percentage of Jefferson County residents are living in poverty, including 13% of those under age 18, 11% of those age 18-34, 6% of those age 35-65, and 5% of senior citizens.
Founded in 1966, Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, Inc. aims to engage all sectors of local communities in the struggle to eliminate poverty.
The organization’s 5-year goals include helping people develop the capacity, knowledge and skills necessary to improve their economic and social circumstances and ensuring that people develop assets that enable them to strengthen their economic futures.
In Jefferson County, the Community Action Coalition provides services to low-income individuals, including eviction prevention, emergency motel vouchers, programs for veterans, free winter clothing items, emergency food and household items and use of the organization’s phone, computers and Internet.
The CAC has seen demand for its services rise during the pandemic as people were thrown out of work or experienced other hardships which taxed their personal finances to the point they couldn’t pay rent.
In July, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, through the Department of Administration and the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program, awarded the CAC more than $1 million (across the entire organization, not just for use in Jefferson County) to help state residents make up to three months of past-due rent payments.
Between July and September, Duddy said, the CAC received more than 300 applications from Jefferson County residents who were behind on their rent.
“Within 24 hours of the program being launched, we received 1,500 applications from residents in Dane, Jefferson and Waukesha counties,” she said.
While this program helped bridge the gap for many, it has now ended, even as the pandemic and related economic effects continue.
Meanwhile, individual COVID-19 stimulus funds passed earlier in the year through the U.S. government have now run out, leaving those on the bottom of the economic ladder in dire straits again.
“We are seeing poverty across the county rise, and estimate one in three Jefferson County residents is struggling to make ends meet,” Duddy said, citing statistics from ALICE, 2020.
Jude Hartwick of the Homeless Coalition of Fort Atkinson, said that it’s hard to get a measure of how the pandemic is affecting local residents.
“It’s really hard to judge if things are getting worse,” Hartwick said. “We have jobs at Opportunities that provide enough money for people to live transitionally.
He said that Pastor Paul Johnson has indicated that the “Feed Your Soul” free meal program his church has seen demand go up to three times the previous level during the pandemic, but it’s not certain how much of that rise is due to increased need.
Due to the pandemic, Feed Your Soul has gone from in-person meal service to a pick-up system, which may mean that some people are picking up more than one meal at a time.
“Some people do seem to be impacted after having lost their job, but most seem to be doing okay,” Hartwick said.
While need may or may not have risen significantly in the immediate area, there certainly is a base level of need that the community is working to address, he said.
In Jefferson County, the “living wage” in order to pay the bills for a single adult living alone comes in at $11.27 per hour. That’s assuming the person earning that wage earns a full 40-hour week, however, which is not the case for many.
Meanwhile, minimum wage comes in at $7.25, and a single person would be considered to be living in poverty with a wage of $6 per hour or lower.
The more people that wage supports, the more money is needed, however. For example, for a single adult with one child to make a “living wage” it would take a full-time job making $25.25 an hour, whereas the poverty line for that case would fall at $8.13 an hour.
With one adult and two children to support, the “living wage” in this region would be a full-time job making $30.25 an hour, while the poverty line would fall at $10.25 an hour.
With one adult and three children to support, the “living wage” in this region would be a full-time job making $37.67 an hour.
The numbers also differ for a two-parent family with only one parent working, or for a two-parent family with both adults working.
Duddy said that while it might seem individuals can do little to affect the overall pandemic or the related economic downturn, if Jefferson County residents work together and commit to certain simple actions, they could have a positive effect in our area.
“From our perspective, there are three things people can do to help Jefferson County during the pandemic,” Duddy said.
“First, follow the public health guidance by wearing masks, social distancing and choosing to be safer at home,” she said. “Often, our low-wage essential workers lack access to paid time off, health care and other lifesaving services.
“The kindness that comes with wearing a mask could save the life of someone you may never meet,” she said.
Duddy urged people to become informed about homelessness and poverty and the factors that contribute to these problems.
“The needs of Jefferson County’s most vulnerable people are going to be very costly in the future if we don’t start serving the whole person,” Duddy said.
“Often, people living in poverty are not just struggling with housing or food,” Duddy said. “They may be having a difficult time managing stress, getting to work, obtaining health care, or a number of other issues.”
She said studies show the average individual experiencing homelessness costs society approximately $63,308 per year if you take into account their impact on the justice system, health care system and more.
However, using a housing-first case management approach, the cost of supporting that individual drops to $16,913, she said, citing information from the Economic Roundtable, 2013.
Duddy said in this time when so many are suffering, we should take this opportunity to consider the importance of a living wage.
“More people are living in poverty today than in prior years because their wages have not increased,” she said. “In Jefferson County, a living wage for a family of four with two adults working full-time is $16.46 per hour. Now more than ever, families are struggling and could use a raise.”