Getting By in Oakland County

It's still one of the country's wealthiest places, but the aftershocks of the Great Recession have left many struggling to get by – or get ahead


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Oakland County Resident Missy Francis // Photograph Courtesy of Stephen Francis

Missy Francis has a bachelor’s degree in English literature. But when the mother of five left her alcoholic husband in 2012 after 24 years of marriage — including 13 years of staying home to raise her children — job opportunities were scarce.

For several months, Francis and her youngest child were homeless, bouncing among friends’ houses. Finally, she landed a job temping at a law firm and was able to rent a two-bedroom walk-up apartment with no air conditioning in Ortonville. The law firm hired her permanently as an executive secretary three months later.

“When I left [my marriage], I had nothing,” says Francis, 53. “Now I’m worried about retiring; 65 is coming on really fast. I might not ever be able to retire. I’m happy working, I like my job, but I worry about having enough money when I’m older.”

Amid restaurant openings, housing prices once again on the rise, and other signs of economic health in Oakland County, it can be easy to overlook the fact that the recovery has left many far behind.

“The employment picture in Oakland County has been quite good overall, but it’s similar to the national economic picture — if you have the education and you have the skills, you’re doing well,” says Kurt Metzger, director emeritus at Data Driven Detroit and mayor of Pleasant Ridge. “If you don’t, this economy is not your economy.”

Economic struggle in Oakland County

In 2000, Oakland County ranked fourth in the nation in median household income among counties with a population of 1 million or more. By 2014, median household income had declined more than 20 percent, and the county ranked 12th in the nation.

As household income dropped, the poverty rate rose. In 1999, 5.5 percent of Oakland County residents were living at or below the poverty line; by 2014, the rate was 9.9 percent, which is more than 100,000 people. And the percentage of the county’s children in poverty was 12.4 percent.

Poverty rates, however, don’t capture the reality of widespread economic struggle in the county. Nonprofits that provide services to those in need point to the ALICE data for a true picture of a community’s health. ALICE — an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — draws upon American Community Survey data to identify households with working members whose earnings put them above the poverty line, but below the cost of living. ALICE puts the survival budget for a single adult in Oakland County at $20,592; for a family of four, it’s $63,660.

In 2015, 20 percent of Oakland County households were above the poverty line but below the ALICE survival threshold. Combined with the households in poverty, that means that nearly one-third of households in what is still one of the wealthiest counties in the nation aren’t earning enough to get by, let alone get ahead or withstand even a minor financial crisis.

And in 10 cities (Auburn Hills, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Keego Harbor, Madison Heights, Oak Park, Pontiac, Southfield, Walled Lake, and Wixom), that ALICE figure is closer to 30 percent.

For people like Francis, falling short of the ALICE survival threshold normally means forgoing dreams like owning a home. But her story is different thanks to Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County, which builds and rehabilitates houses and helps low-income families buy homes.

Francis applied to the Habitat homeownership program in 2014. And after putting in the required 300 hours of sweat equity, she expects to close on her newly built 1,260-square-foot home in Lake Orion in the coming months.

“I think owning a home is the best way to secure my future and my kids’ future, and maybe even have something to leave behind for them when I’m gone,” Francis says. “It means so much to me what Habitat is doing for me, and all the volunteers who pitched in to help.”

Habitat of Oakland County expects to assist 101 families this year through its home buying, neighborhood revitalization, and financial coaching programs.

“We see over and over that parents are working two to three $10-an-hour jobs just to put food on the table, and there’s nothing left,” says Tim Ruggles, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County. “We know that with a stable home environment, kids do better in school, are healthier, have higher likelihood of attending college or trade school. It’s a safe haven when they go home. This is the hope side of what we do. We create that hope that folks who are struggling can achieve that same American dream that you and I are achieving.”

Closing the gap

Clarkston Resident Tyran Williams

For many older Oakland County residents, it was impossible to fully recover from the financial losses sustained in the recession.

“We lost $14 billion in value in the county during the recession,” Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner says. “That’s the macro level. At the micro level, it’s the story of tens of thousands of families getting hit with these negative circumstances — loss of a job, loss of health. At the micro level is where that $14 billion comes from.”

Tyran Williams, 63, ran his own home health care agency in the ’80s and ’90s. It thrived, and he was able to retire in 2003. Then came the recession, which wiped out much of his savings.

“I went through a bit of a depression wondering how I was going to make it,” Williams says.

Today, he rents a home in Clarkston, but still finds it difficult to keep up with the expenses. So now Williams is searching for a roommate.

“A lot of seniors like myself are running ads in the newspapers to other seniors to double up and share the cost of living,” he says. “They have a saying, ‘Once an adult, twice a child,’ and that’s exactly it.”

Williams has often turned to Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency (OLHSA) for help.

“I’ve been able to get health care assistance in my home,” Williams says. “For medical assistance — like bath chairs, grab bars — they’re the agency you can go to. They’re a wonderful agency for those things. They can help a senior out considerably.”

The community action agency, founded in 1964 as part of the War on Poverty, provides a broad range of services for low-income residents of all ages. OLHSA serves more than 1,000 children through its free preschool program; provides support with nutrition, housing, and transportation to individuals with HIV; helps with home weatherization; provides rapid rehousing for homeless veterans; and runs a welcome center that functions as a one-stop shop for people who require assistance in a financial crisis.

“If you don’t know where to turn, call us,” says OLHSA CEO Susan Harding. “We say, cradle to grave; we have supports available.”

Meeting basic needs

For those below the poverty line, the bridge to self-sufficiency can be a punishing one. Government programs aimed at helping people climb out of poverty seem almost perversely designed to keep them in it, says Wilma Abney, chief programs officer at Lighthouse of Oakland County.

If, for example, a single father receiving food stamps or affordable housing support gets a job at a fast food restaurant and sustains that employment, he can expect to see his food stamps reduced and his rent go up — because the guidelines for housing support allow up to 30 percent of one’s income to be spent on housing.

“If I had a magic wand, I would not penalize families, adults, for doing what we tell them they should be doing, which is to get a job,” Abney says.

Indeed, the obstacles can be staggering for those trying to survive with lower-paying jobs in the service industry. Minimum wage in Michigan is $8.90/hour. A married couple with two children would each need to earn more than $15/hour in a 40-hour-per-week job in order to meet the survival threshold in Oakland County.

“The positions available, especially for women, are lower paid, fast-food jobs,” Abney says. “It’s not that they’re not working, but it’s not in a way that’s going to move them to self-sufficiency.”

Lighthouse, founded in 1972, provides emergency services to low-income individuals, along with transitional supportive housing to single mothers and their children. Its food pantries in Pontiac and Clarkston serve thousands of families annually and are the primary entry point for its services, which also include a large holiday assistance program and financial and employment coaching.

“The one thing we find during the holidays is [parents] have certain resources they can utilize,” says James McQueen, Lighthouse’s pantry manager. “They’re stuck with the decision of, ‘do I buy food, do I buy Christmas presents, do I make that car repair?’ Agencies such as Lighthouse fill in that gap, and we’re definitely proud of the work we do.”

In fact, organizations like Lighthouse and OLHSA can help the working poor stay afloat as they struggle to build a more secure future for themselves.

James Hammond, 57, works full time and serves as an Army reservist, which he’s done for 38 years. The Pontiac resident and staff sergeant’s yearly income exceeds federal guidelines for poverty — a mere $11,770 for a single adult — but by any realistic measure of what it costs to live in clean, healthy circumstances, Hammond’s wages of $12.36/hour, even when supplemented by the $300/month he gets from the Army, aren’t enough. And they certainly don’t allow him to do ordinary things like own a car, buy a house, or save for the future.

“I’m pulling out all right, but it’s still not enough,” Hammond says. “I make enough to keep a roof over my head and have something to eat. But I can still do better.”

OLHSA helped Hammond with things like past-due rent and fixing his windshield after he was pulled over for it so that he could get to work.

“Most of our people are working but just need that little extra boost,” says Harding, OLHSA’s CEO. “They’re piecing together two part-time jobs to make ends meet and they just need that one utility assistance payment each year to make their budget work. Sometimes if you can just do one thing for a person, it changes the whole trajectory.”

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