This is part one of a two-day series on poverty and its challenges in Muscatine. Part 2 focusing on food insecurity and the work of the Muscatine Community Food Pantry will appear in Friday's Muscatine Journal.
MUSCATINE, Iowa – Many families in Muscatine struggle to make enough money to survive, according to a new statewide survey conducted by the United Ways of Iowa.
Between daycare, housing costs, college debt, and the need to feed their children, even families that are not below the Federal Poverty Level often need to postpone paying bills, stay home to avoid daycare costs, and hope that surprise complications do not dent their budgets beyond repair.
The study, ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed, and it examines not only families living below the poverty line, but beneath a threshold created by a household survival budget. Those households beneath the ALICE threshold may be actively working but still struggle to make ends meet.
More than 30 percent of Muscatine residents are facing financial hardships, according to the study.
“It’s people that are your neighbors. It’s people that are your friends. It’s people that you interact with on a daily basis. It’s your coworkers It's all of these people that you don’t realize are not making enough money to survive month to month,” said Shane Orr, director of the United Way of Muscatine.
Muscatine's Ashley Glasscock and her husband Corey, and their four children fall below the ALICE threshold.
“Everyone goes through struggles,” she said.
Of the 16,301 households in Muscatine County, 33 percent were below the ALICE threshold in 2014, and less than half of those were below the Federal Poverty Level.
The report also breaks counties down by city-level data, and the City of Muscatine is listed at 38 percent ALICE and poverty, higher than both the county and statewide percentages.
Orr said while the numbers were not exactly surprising, ALICE draws attention to an often forgotten group.
"What we’re really talking about is people in the middle…They’re making too much to qualify for a lot of assistance, but they’re still not making so much that they can comfortably meet all of the necessities each month,” he said.
Those basic necessities can be a struggle for the Glasscock family as their seven-year-old Evan requires a yearly evaluation for his dyslexia. Five-year-old Kylie needs speech therapy, and four-year-old twins Bailey and Aubrey are constant balls of energy.
This week, their air conditioner stopped functioning. Ashley Glasscock said had they not been fortunate enough to have a family member give them an air conditioner, she wasn’t sure what they would have done in Iowa's summer heat.
“Use a lot of fans I guess?” she said.
Britiany Franks and her daughters, 4-year-old Lyla and 17-month-old Lillian, are also an ALICE family.
Franks said incidents like a broken air conditioner or necessary car repair is something many families struggle to deal with financially.
“If any emergency thing happens, you don’t know how you would cope,” she said.
Glasscock and her husband both attended Muscatine Community College and hold Associates Degrees. She said when she tried to work in her field in addition to her husband, they were losing money.
“Daycare was around $300 per week, which was my entire paycheck and some of my husband's,” she said.
While she said they were happy to be off state assistance, the added cost of daycare, food, and medical assistance when she was working gouged too deep a hole in their budget, so she left her job and returned home.
“I don’t want to be on state assistance, but I have to think of the kids,” Glasscock said.
Judgment, she said, always comes in the grocery store, when she goes to buy food for her family using food stamps.
“I don’t go through the aisles buying them candy on my food stamps, but if I buy a box of cake mix for a birthday I feel judged,” Glasscock said.
Franks, a single mother, has also struggled with childcare costs. When she was promoted at the local not-for-profit she works for, she said with the excitement came worry as she was kicked off childcare assistance.
“I have to work 40 hours a week to make ends meet, so I lose out on a lot of time with the kids,” she said.
Local agencies, Franks said, do take away some daily stress by providing families with assistance.
“They make it easier not to feel bad about asking for help,” she said.
According to ALICE, a family in Muscatine would need to make $48,096 per year, or $24.05 per hour, for two adults and two children. That budget is based on minimum requirements for housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, miscellaneous, and taxes.
“In the past there have been little programs and little pockets of stuff trying to address this…Nothing that’s really been a concerted effort toward this until recently,” Orr said.
Kim Warren, Aligned Impact Muscatine (AIM) Director, said the collective impact approach is beginning with the College Changes Everything grant, which will allow AIM to address education issues in whatever way they see fit.
“The overarching goal is to increase educational attainment,” Warren said.
She said the state predicts that seven out of 10 jobs will require post-secondary education by 2025.
Glasscock said she has mixed emotions regarding post-secondary education.
“You can definitely better yourself, and I don’t regret going, but the debt….” she said.
But Warren hopes helping adults and high school students in Muscatine fill out financial assistance forms and choose a program will eventually decrease the percentage of ALICE families.
“One thing that AIM is trying to do is focus on the degrees, credentials, and trade skills that match what the workforce need is,” she said.
Franks earned her certificate in administrative office support while working and caring for her family. She said that programs should also factor in the difficulty many adults may have finding time to further their education.
“When you have mouths to feed, college takes a back seat,” she said.
AIM’s leadership council is composed of representatives from Musser Public Library, the Muscatine Community School District, Muscatine Community College, the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and other local organizations hoping to help change the numbers.
In 2012, 82 percent of students graduated high school in Muscatine, and 64 percent enrolled in post-secondary education.
Collaboration, Warren and Orr said, will be needed to increase those percentages. With help from both the public and private sector, they are hopeful that increasing student and adult attainment of post-secondary education will lower the percentage of ALICE families in Muscatine.
“The whole community is responsible for those numbers,” Orr said.
Franks said recognition of the problem is an important first step toward solving the difficulties many Muscatine families face. She said many want to achieve higher education levels to receive better jobs, but then often struggle because they make barely too much to qualify for needed assistance.
“They tend to fall through the cracks. It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.
Being open-minded, Franks said, is one way everyone can help support families like hers.
“You really don’t truly know until you have to be there yourself,” Franks said.