Target 2 Investigates: families on edge as costs rise, pay stagnates

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Hundreds of thousands of families in Wisconsin are one paycheck or unforeseen life event away from becoming homeless.

Following our reports on the changing face of homelessness in our area, Target 2 Investigates received hundreds of responses from viewers about the difficulty to make ends meet.

More than one-third of all people in Wisconsin are in that same situation.

Target 2 dug into the staggering statistics and found why so many people are working hard but still falling short.


Working mom Valerie Spiering is ALICE. It's not a name. It's Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

"We have used cars. We have to kind of balance what's a necessity and what's not. We can splurge now and then, but then you pay off for a couple of months," Spiering says.

Valerie and her husband are among the nearly 700,000 families in the state who are working, raising kids, juggling childcare and bills. They are just getting by.

"ALICE individuals and families are workers," says Robyn Davis, President and CEO, United Way of Brown County. "They are the individuals who are making our community tick."

These families are often the salespeople at retails stores. They make your food in restaurants. Some fix your car.

Target 2 found nearly 30 percent of all people in Wisconsin live above the federal poverty level but make less than the basic cost of living.

"There's no magic bullet," Davis says. "If you have job, like that's the first thing, right, as long as you have a job you'll be OK? OK that's not the case."


The United Way of Wisconsin commissioned the ALICE Project in 2016 to figure out why families are struggling to make ends meet.

The project shows many jobs in Wisconsin do not pay enough to cover the basics: housing, child care, food, health care, and transportation.

The ALICE Project pulled data from the IRS, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Department of Housing and Urban Development. They used this to calculate a survival budget.

A family--two parents, a baby, and preschooler--needs to make $56,000 a year, or $28 an hour, just to get by.

The study shows the average Wisconsin family makes about $52,000 a year.

Food and rent are no longer the biggest cost. Those necessities have been replaced by child care. Child care costs average about $1,200 a-month in Wisconsin.

As a mom and child care provider, Valerie Spiering understands.

"If you don't have child care, you can't go to work. If you can't go to work, you can't earn money. And if you can't earn money, you can't pay for housing and food and all the other necessities," Spiering tells us.


Now factor in housing. A survival budget in Brown County tops rent for a single person at $422 a-month, or $681 a-month for a family.

Many of our viewers have told us that it is hard to find anything in this area for less than $800 per month for a family.

Half of all people living in Green Bay are either below federal poverty or just above it. In Appleton, that number is 38 percent. In Ashwaubenon it's 41 percent. In Oshkosh, it's 50 percent.

"I think it's important for our community to recognize that there are a lot more people across our community who are struggling," Davis says.


The ALICE Project found the cost of necessities has gone up. So has the number of jobs. However, pay isn't keeping pace.

Statewide, 65 percent of jobs pay less than $20 per hour. That leaves little ability for families to save money.

"We don't have a big nest egg," Spiering says. "I see retirement ads and things like that, I'm not thinking about that."

Despite the struggles, Valerie doesn't complain.

"Someone's always struggling more than you are," Spiering says. "We're just focusing on what can we do to line our boys up for success in the future? And that's kind of what drives us."

Those who help the homeless every day worry about the number of ALICE families that will need their help if nothing changes.

Andrea Pasqualucci is a social worker for the Ashwaubenon School District. "The families we're working with are just so on the edge that anything wrong or falling apart, is sending people back into homelessness," she tells Target 2.

When it comes to saving for retirement or other needs, the ALICE Project figures two adults putting 10 percent in savings, plus paying for a smartphone, would need to make almost $103,000 a-year.

The ALICE Project has published the number of struggling households and rated housing affordability, job opportunities, and community resources by county. Click here to view that information, which starts on page 178 (numbers are located at the bottom corners of the pages).


Golden House:

Golden House wish list:

House of Hope:

House of Hope wish list:

Freedom House:

Freedom House in-kind gifts/needs:

SOFT program (providing short-term hotel vouchers to families to allow them to save money to afford a place of their own):

Salvation Army:

United Way of Wisconsin:

Ecumenical Partnership for Housing:

Integrated Community Solutions (runs the federal housing voucher program for Brown County).

If families are struggling and don’t know where to turn, United Way recommends calling 211. You can dial that from any phone in Wisconsin and reach a person, 24 hours a day.

Brown County United Way:

United Way Fox Cities:

United Way Fox Cities 211 page: