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Barely Getting By: What it looks like to struggle financially in the Chippewa Valley

Eau Claire (WQOW) – Four in ten people in Eau Claire County can struggle financially, and local experts said they don’t fit any common stereotype. 

We decided to dig deeper into what it really looks like to face financial hardship. Local experts say there’s no “one” type of person who falls into that category, and under the wrong circumstances, it could happen to just about anyone.

We had a house. We had a car. We had primary placement of all of our children. We had a life, a family,” said Alia Hanson. “We lost everything. Quickly.” Alia Hanson and her fiance Wes Eaton work full-time in manufacturing, but they can barely afford their small rental.

They’re just like the 42 percent of people in Eau Claire County struggling to pay their bills. About 14 percent of them fall under the federal poverty line, meaning they make less than $16,640 for a family of two. For a family of four, that number is $25,100. The rest of that struggling population, or 28 percent of Eau Claire County, are in the “ALICE” category, which stands for “asset-limited income-restrained and employed”.

They are unable to make ends meet, despite the fact that they’re employed,” said Jan Porath, Executive Director of the United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley. “Some of the decisions they have to make really are troubling.”

I had to superglue my shoes back together for work. I mean, neither one of us even owns a winter jacket that’ll work because my sleeve fell off my coat yesterday,” Hanson said, laughing self-depricatingly. She gets quiet and looks down. “It would seem like small things, but in the scheme of things it all adds up.”

It’s a tricky place to be in. Hanson and Eaton are above that federal poverty line, so they don’t qualify for many assistance programs. However, they don’t make enough to be upwardly mobile. “We can’t get ahead right now,” Hanson said, emotional. They share one cell phone between the two of them.

Western Dairyland Community Action Agency offers lots of services to people who need them. Communications Coordinator Dale Karls said lots of families he sees are just getting by until disaster strikes. “They’re living day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck usually,” Karls said. “So they’re not really advancing economically, but they’re making it. And then something happens to the family, that could be a medical emergency, that could be legal issues, or that could be, quite often, job loss.”

One of the big expenses families face is child care. According to Business Broker, Wisconsin is tied for third place in the nation for how much of an average family’s income is spent just on day care. “We’re trying to make child care more affordable for the parents, and that’s really hard to do in a lot of cases, because we also want the child care providers to make a good wage,” said Karls. “We’re still working on it. We don’t have an answer to that right now.”

For some families, even a simple car repair can put them in the red. CarMD reported Wisconsinites spend, on average, about $350 a year on car fixes. That’s one of the lowest rates in the nation, but it’s a big unexpected expense when you can barely pay your rent. “Our car right now is on its last legs,” Hanson said. “Working out of town that’s terrifying, because you really don’t know how long your car is gonna run for.”

One of the biggest financial burdens for many families is medical bills. The newest data available from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services shows the average American spends almost $10,000 a year on health care. Hanson says she was diagnosed with lymphoma and lupus years ago, which caused their first financial nosedive. “We ended up living at my mom’s, we were there for a while, managed to pick ourselves up just enough to get a rental here,” said Hanson.

Then, bad luck struck again: Eaton broke his leg this past summer. “He called me screaming in pain,” said Hanson. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard him cry in my life,” she said, then silence filled the room. They had no choice but to spend the small nest egg they had been working so hard to build. “We don’t have a back-up plan anymore,” said Hanson. She said now they’re more than $100,000 in debt just from medical bills. “There’s no way out,” she said as she teared up. “Once you’re in this hole, there’s no way out.” Karls has seen this situation before. “Nothing to fall back on, and then where do you go?”

With so many people struggling in our community, Karls said they don’t fit any common stereotype. “They look just like me and you, they walk and talk and act just like you and I do. They go to our churches, they’re members of our community.” Hanson admits they’re not perfect, but said she feels judged on an almost-daily basis. “It doesn’t mean that we chose it, it doesn’t mean that we brought it on ourselves. People need to stop the stigma toward people like us.”

Of course, this is just one family’s story, and no one is perfect. There are many other families going through the same issues.

Everyone wants to say that people like me and him must do something to remain in this situation, we have to be doing everything wrong, because if you actually go to work there’s no way you could be so broke. And that’s, that’s not true at all,” she said through tears. “That’s not true at all.”

An event will be held Thursday, October 25 called Building Trust: Eau Claire And Its Journalists Engage On Poverty. The goal is to hear from experts about how poverty impacts the people in our community, and how reporters cover it and educate the public. The event starts at six at the Pablo Center at the Confluence, and it’s free.

Savanna Tomei

Savanna is the 6 p.m. producer and co-anchor, and also anchors the 10 p.m. newscast.

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