Community corner: Helping families since 1971

In 1971, South County Community Services was incorporated as a non-profit called “Vicksburg Community Center.” The name, but not the purpose, was changed a few years later.

The purpose of the Vicksburg Community Center was “to plan, promote, and coordinate efforts that are designed to achieve economic and social benefits” and to provide a framework through which volunteers and donors could “attack the causes and conditions which socially and economically deprive citizens … from achieving their potentials.”

Given this illustrious founding cause, at South County Community Services we think a lot about poverty and its effects. There are a lot of different ways to define poverty. The federal government still uses the Federal Poverty Line (FPL), which was created in the 1960s by taking a basic food budget (evaporated milk, no vegetables) and multiplying it by a factor of three – in the belief that food should be approximately one third of a family’s budget. Since then, the FPL has been slowly adjusted up for inflation. But it never really worked in the first place, so it doesn’t do a good job of estimating real-world cost of living now.

Fortunately we have another option. Since 2010, United Way organizations across Michigan have been working to develop a better way of understanding poverty – a method that uses median costs of essential services (rent, food, daycare, etc.) to estimate a survival budget for different sizes of households. The impressive thing about this is that it estimates essential costs for each county, so it accounts for cost-of-living differences from city to city. They call this estimate ALICE for “Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed,” because it is trying to capture people who work but still have trouble meeting their basic expenses from time to time. They do not account for saving money, paying off debt, or other important (but not essential) expenses.

The last county-level ALICE report (in 2019) shows that approximately a quarter of Kalamazoo County residents live below this “ALICE Threshold” and more recent state-wide reports suggest that number is probably closer to 30 or so percent. With hourly pay that is lagging behind inflation, it is likely to continue to increase over the next year or two.

One of the main takeaways from these reports is that families who struggle continue to exist all around us – about one in three of our neighbors are likely to have trouble meeting their basic needs (housing, food, medication, transportation) sometime this year. In 2021, only 37% of Americans reported that they would be able to cover an unexpected $500 expense.

Another section of the 1971 Articles of Incorporation charged us to report to the residents of the area “progress or lack of progress in achieving these above stated purposes.” I can’t say where we are in relation to our founding 51 years ago – data collection is a little different now than it was then – but I can say that we still have a ways to go.

Drew Johnson lives in Kalamazoo and is the Director at South County Community Services. He has a small quarter acre homestead with chickens, bees, and hops (and more!), a wonderful wife, and three energetic children. He can be reached at 649-2901 or

For more information on South County Community Services, please check out our Facebook page at or visit our website:

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