ANN ARBOR – United Way of Washtenaw County has been at the forefront of driving equal opportunity in communities across the county.
Here is its mission:
To connect people, resources and organizations together to create a thriving community for everyone.
For 100 years, UWWC has done exactly that, relying solely on fundraising to see its work through.
United Way is an umbrella organization that funds numerous nonprofits and community programs across the county.
Although its made progress throughout the years, there are still improvements to be made in several areas of society, including income equality, life expectancy, equal opportunity, community awareness, poverty and academic achievement.
So where does Ann Arbor stand?
According to data found on United Way's website from the 2012-2016 American Community Survey five-year estimates:
Population: 120,782 (as of July 1, 2016)
Median household income in 2016: $57,697
Number of households in 2016: 47,248
Households with income of less than $10,000 in 2016: 4,967 (10.5%)
Individuals living below poverty line: 23.4%
All data was retrieved from United Way's data portal. Anyone can access it and search for relevant data in their community.
In 2017, United Way commissioned the ALICE report (asset limited, income constrained, employed) to better understand need in the state of Michigan.
"Because of the student population, 43 percent (of residents in Ann Arbor) are ALICE and living in poverty," Pam Smith, president and CEO of UWWC, said. "In the Ann Arbor area, if you make minimum wage, you have to work 92 hours a week just to afford your apartment."
With the third highest rate of ALICE in the county, Smith explained that students tend to skew lower Ann Arbor wages. Ypsilanti Charter Township and Ypsilanti City are 50 percent and 65 percent ALICE, respectively.
(Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
"Overall, poverty in Washtenaw County is at 14 percent and an additional 23 percent fail to meet the basic minimum to afford the basic needs of the ALICE report. Thirty-nine percent of people in Washtenaw County are really struggling," Smith said.
According to Smith, UWWC's biggest challenge is spreading awareness of poverty in Ann Arbor's own backyard.
"Sometimes, because it is such a great place to live, we have to help people understand that there are people that are really struggling in our community," she said. "That’s our biggest challenge and that’s the one that we continually work to improve.
"I once had a young man say, ‘I never knew we had a homeless shelter in Ann Arbor.’ That is a huge building downtown and people just don’t realize it," Smith said.
According to a report by Opportunity Washtenaw, Ann Arbor is the No. 1 most educated city in America, yet a racial gap of more than 30-40 points exists in student test scores; and Washtenaw County ranks No. 6 for cities that are great for tech grads, yet Ann Arbor is the eighth most economically segregated city in the United States.
Life expectancy is also a pressing issue, and for people of color it is significantly lower than their white counterparts.
According to UWWC's data, Hispanics in Washtenaw County are expected to live up to 20 years less than whites. And for African Americans, it's up to 13 years less compared to whites.
"African-American babies die at twice the rate as white babies in Washtenaw County, for a variety of factors, but still it’s an actual fact that you can’t turn a blind eye to that," Smith said.
She also explained that by 2030, UWWC aims to rid the notion that one's zip code determines one's life opportunities. At the moment, she said, "Typically, right now at St. Joe’s, if you turn right, your life is going to be very different than if you turn left out of that parking lot."
One initiative by UWWC that's made a deep impact is its 24/7 free hotline, 211.
"We get about 8,000 calls a year for help in Washtenaw County," explained Smith. "The top five for Washtenaw County are utility assistance, housing assistance, food security, and depending on the season, toy and holiday programs, and in the summer, emergency dental care."
With just 12 employees, UWWC relies on volunteers to achieve maximum community impact.
(Photo: United Way of Washtenaw County)
"We were the only metro area in the state that didn’t have a coordinated volunteer effort," Smith explained. "Ann Arbor has a pretty strong sense of self so that wasn’t going to sit very well."
When UWWC discussed how to open a volunteer center, Smith said, "We didn’t want it to be brick and mortar because we work so hard to keep our costs as low as possible to put every dollar back into the community. So we decided to do a virtual volunteer center. The volunteer center went beyond our expectations, we had 11,000 volunteers. At any time on the site, there’s about 300 volunteer opportunities with about 200 organizations."
She explained that the discovery aspect of the volunteer website has proved critical, because someone may be looking for volunteer opportunities in a local park, for example, may decide to pursue youth mentoring instead since diverse opportunities are combined in one place.
Another program where volunteers have proven vital is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.
“We prepare income taxes for free through the IRS with volunteers," Smith said. "It’s really neat, and it will start this month. Last year, you could hear Spanish, you could hear Mandarin, you could hear Farsi.
"The reason it’s such an important program is -- not only do we help about 650 people every year -- we bring over $1 million back to the community in refunds and tax credits, and the reason that’s important is because it’s putting cash into people’s hands to get ahead on rent, to get ahead in utilities. Those dollars are spent here, so that’s an economic driver as well," explained Smith.
UWWC began a one-on-one financial counseling program after several people asked for help, improving credit scores for numerous individuals.
Another major issue UWWC addresses in Washtenaw County is food security.
'Food deserts' -- where there's no accessible grocery store -- exist in Washtenaw County.
"I was really amazed when I started at United Way that there are 153 food pantries in Washtenaw County and I remember thinking, 'Wow, that’s a lot,'" Smith said. "And then a mom told me, 'If it doesn’t exist within two blocks and I can’t walk to it, it doesn’t exist to me. I have to walk home to feed a family of four.'"
"Then it made a lot of sense to me that these food pantries are really necessary throughout. The rural parts of our county really need our help, because they’re kind of stuck," Smith explained.
Overall, Smith is thankful for Ann Arbor, where UWWC's headquarters are based.
“It’s really great to be in a community where the people are so well educated," Smith said. "Ann Arbor is also a generous community and also cares about its community. They’re also forward thinking and willing to try new things. It’s such a blessing to work in a community that’s like that."
To learn more about United Way of Washtenaw County, visit its website.
To see volunteer opportunities, click here.