More than half of people with disabilities in West Michigan struggle financially

Financial hardship looms large over people with disabilities in West Michigan. United Way’s ALICE is spearheading some solutions.  

Too often, they find it difficult to clear economic hurdles so they can afford adequate food, shelter, employment, housing, transportation, child care and health care, according to a comprehensive United Way initiative known as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), a research-based method that seeks to understand a complete picture of their financial struggles.
Alyssa Stewart, United Way of South Central Michigan's chief impact officer
Their economic conundrum widens further for people with disabilities who earn enough income to stay above the federal poverty level, but not enough to become financially stable. Said another way, they are forced to make “impossible choices.”

“The ALICE report makes visible a population that might otherwise be overlooked and undersupported,” says Alyssa Stewart, United Way of South Central Michigan’s chief impact officer. “When funds run short, cash-strapped households are forced to make impossible choices. Deciding between quality childcare or paying the rent. Filling a prescription or fixing the car. These short-term decisions have long-term consequences not only for ALICE families, but for all of us.”

Recognizing barriers

It’s even tougher for people of color with disabilities.

“In Calhoun and Barry counties, people with disabilities who are more likely to face financial hardship are Black/Indigenous/people of color, with one in five below the ALICE Threshold; single-led households, which are especially prone to be in poverty; and those with no post-secondary education,” Stewart says.

“Many below the ALICE Threshold aren’t getting access to food or supplemental income assistance, often because of the ‘cliff effect,’” Stewart continues. “They earn just above the level to qualify for benefits, which means they get none at all. That’s part of the reason why people with disabilities are three times more likely to not be in the labor force — along with other issues, including discrimination, lack of accessibility, lack of transportation and lack of direct care workers. Barriers like these stand in the way of people with disabilities who want to be fully engaged in our communities. We can and must do more to help them realize their full potential.”

Throughout Michigan, Black and Hispanic residents with disabilities — 65% and 54% respectively — disproportionately experienced financial hardship compared to 43% of white people with disabilities, according to the Michigan Association of United Ways.

Moreover, females with disabilities struggled more to afford the basics — 51%, compared to 44% of males with disabilities. 

Michigan saw 59% of residents with disabilities below the ALICE Threshold spend 35% or more of their income on their mortgage, plus utilities, taxes and insurance.

Whether working full or part time, people with disabilities were more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck than those without disabilities: 21% of full-time workers with disabilities were below the ALICE Threshold compared to 16% of full-time workers without disabilities. 

ALICE report helps ‘measure the gaps’

Unfortunately, such hardships doesn’t tell the whole story: The rates of poverty are likely even higher than could be counted, as data is not available for individuals living in nursing homes, correctional facilities, and other group settings.
Liz DeLaLuz, vice president of community impact for United Way of Ottawa and Allegan Counties
“We believe community collaboration is what is needed to address the lack of basic essentials for our ALICE families,” says Liz DeLaLuz, vice president of community impact for United Way of Ottawa and Allegan Counties. “The ALICE report helps us to measure the gaps in basic essentials that families and individuals need to survive and thrive every day.”
Dominque Bunker, United Way of the Lakeshore's community engagement director
United Way of the Lakeshore is fighting to eliminate the barriers for all ALICE families regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, or family makeup, according to Dominique Bunker, United Way of the Lakeshore’s community engagement director.

Bunker says the Lakeshore United Way is meeting needs head-on with partner programs:
  • A transportation voucher program with the Disability Network of West Michigan.
  • Advocacy, family support, and financial services with The Arc Muskegon.
  • Low vision clinic and rehabilitation with the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 
  • The senior medical transportation program through AgeWell Services.
Last year, United Way of the Lakeshore offered the 21-Day Disability Equity Challenge in July to explore disability from a position of equity. The event was "designed to raise awareness, increase understanding, and shift perspectives about disability in our culture,” Bunker says. “For Day of Caring, we also repair veterans’ homes in our area (a majority who have a disability) as a way to pay tribute and honor our local heroes. 

Similar struggles in Kent County
Michigan Association of United Ways Director of Public Policy and Partnerships Nancy Lindman
Heart of West Michigan United Way (Kent County) referred Issue Media Group to the Michigan Association of United Ways. Director of Public Policy and Partnerships Nancy Lindman, says for many people with disabilities, employment doesn’t come easy.

Barriers related to discrimination, accessibility, and transportation often keep them from gaining the employment they need to stay financially stable.

For people of color who have disabilities, persistent racism, discrimination, and systemic barriers have all played a role. 

Compared to the overall Michigan data, in Kent County, 45% of people with disabilities are below the ALICE threshold, with 66% of Black individuals with disabilities and 48% of Hispanic/Latino individuals with disabilities below the ALICE threshold. 

“United Ways throughout the state mobilize hundreds of partners and thousands of donors, advocates, and volunteers to advance equitable communities where ALICE households are stable and children thrive,” says Lindman. 

“Specifically, United Ways meet immediate needs by funding programs that provide urgent, short-term relief for those who are hungry, without a place to sleep, or who have experienced domestic violence,” continues Lindman. “At the same time, we understand that for ALICE to overcome barriers, root causes must be addressed, and so we fund job training, financial counseling, affordable housing, youth education, and many other programs that help individuals and families build toward a more secure future. 

“United Ways innovate and support the statewide 2-1-1 system, a free-to-use service that connects Michiganders with over 27,000 services in 7,100 local, state and national services to address barriers.”

Despite their challenges, people with disabilities make significant economic contributions to the economy. They educate children, keep people healthy, and make a good quality of life possible for everyone. Yet they often don’t have the resources to care for their own families.

“When ALICE succeeds, our whole community succeeds,” notes Stewart.

Needs are worsened by inequities

United Way is focusing on partnerships and programs to address the needs of ALICE households, especially where those needs intersect with racial and economic inequities.

United Way of South Central Michigan’s six county region, for example, works with 101 partner agencies on 131 annually funded programs, plus dozens of collaboratives and initiatives at the local, state and national level. 

  • Its Financial Stability Collaborative/Shared Housing Intervention Program (Eaton/Ingham) is geared toward housing for homeless youth and families outside traditional shelter space, with resources for financial literacy, self-advocacy skill-building, and financial assistance for first month’s rent, all aimed at addressing generational poverty.
  • Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (Clinton, Eaton, Gratiot, Ionia, Ingham, Kalamazoo, Montcalm, Shiawassee and Washtenaw) provides free tax preparation to low- and moderate-income households, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people with limited English proficiency. According to the National Society of Accountants, each tax return done through VITA saves a family $273 in preparation fees, not to mention ensuring families get every tax credit they deserve. That's money that can be used for other essentials. Also, VITA partners with local organizations that can help taxpayers make the most of their refund. 
  • Eviction prevention/diversion (Calhoun/Jackson/Kalamazoo) partners with legal services organizations to make sure low-income renters and homeowners know the legal safeguards and resources available to them to avoid unlawful evictions.
  • Continuum of Care (Kalamazoo) is a partnership of agencies to improve communication and services, advocate for equitable solutions to end homelessness, and leverage state, local and federal resources to implement a county-wide Plan to End Homelessness.
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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