Image by Eric Ward via Unsplash Image by Eric Ward via Unsplash

Wall Street records are not translating to everyone on Main Street.

Emily Shields is familiar with the news reports about a strong U.S. economy, soaring stock market, and Wisconsin’s record-low unemployment rates. But she simply doesn’t relate to any of those headlines this Christmas.

Shields, a 26-year-old mother of three, feels anything but economically comfortable. She works part-time at Piercing Pagoda, an Eau Claire ear-piercing business, and manages the mobile home park on the city’s north side, where she lives. She says she and her family struggle to get by, subsisting on about $15,000 this year. 

“It’s so frustrating,” Shields said. “I’m trying hard to make ends meet. But I just don’t make enough money to get ahead … My monthly income is about the same as the cost of renting a three-bedroom home.”

Shields, who lives with her boyfriend Tylor Stream, is far from alone among residents in the Eau Claire area who are living in poverty. The poverty rate in Eau Claire County and the southern half of Chippewa County was 14.4 percent in 2017, the second-highest rate in the state, according to the Wisconsin Poverty Report study released in June by the UW-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty . Only Milwaukee County had a higher  figure, at 17.2 percent.

Milwaukee County annually holds the top poverty level in Wisconsin, but the Eau Claire/Chippewa counties’ designation as second-highest, among the 28 regions the state was divided into for the study, surprised many who work for agencies that deal with people in poverty.

“It was a real shock,” Jan Porath, executive director of United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, said.. “I know poverty is an issue here. But I didn’t expect that we would rank this high.”

Besides Milwaukee County, the Eau Claire/Chippewa counties area was the only part of Wisconsin significantly above the state’s 10.2 percent average poverty rate. Some of the state’s 72 counties had higher poverty levels but were part of regions with lesser figures.

To be considered living in poverty in 2017, a single person could make no more than $12,060 annually and income for a family of four would be no greater than $24,600. 

“There are so many people out there like me struggling.”

Multiple factors account for the relatively high poverty rate in the Eau Claire area, among them the highest health care costs in Wisconsin, housing prices that have risen significantly during the past decade, and costly childcare expenses. Wages also play a role as studies show pay in the Chippewa Valley typically lags that in other comparable-size communities across the Midwest.  

Shields’ living expenses will only grow when she has her fourth child, a birth scheduled for three weeks from now. She previously worked as a certified nursing assistant and plans to boost her income in the future through employment as a personal care worker. In the meantime, she continues to struggle to put food on the table and pay other bills.

Even buying Christmas presents for her children —  5-year-old Carmina, 4-year-old Ronald and 1-year-old Landyn — isn’t possible, Shields said. She relies on charitable programs by the Mayo Clinic and Salvation Army to provide them. 

“Without them, we wouldn’t be able to afford to give our kids Christmas gifts,” she said. “There are so many people out there like me struggling.”