In Bay County, the median household is about $3,000 less than the state's household median of $55,462. At 5.3, Bay's unemployment rate is .01 higher than the state while the percent of households in poverty is 1% lower than the state's 13%.

PANAMA CITY — A recently released report shows 1 in 2 households in the region are income insecure or living in poverty.


United Way of Northwest Florida released the report last week. The report showed that in 2018, 55% of households across the six-county service region, including Bay, Gulf, Calhoun, Washington, Holmes, and Jackson counties, were ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) or met the federal poverty line.


"Over the last decade, Florida’s low-income families systematically lost buying power and financial stability as the high cost of essentials outpaced wages, driving the number of ALICE households to rise 66% by 2018," the news release stated referencing the report.


The 2018 data was compared to the same point-in-time report from 2007. Over 10 years, ALICE households jumped by 66% across the state — putting a third of Floridian households in the category — the highest ever recorded.


In Bay County, the median household is about $3,000 less than the state's household median of $55,462. At 5.3, Bay's unemployment rate is .01 higher than the state while the percent of households in poverty is 1% lower than the state's 13%.


United Way Communications Director Ken McVay described a typical household that would reflect those criteria as being a single parent, elderly individual, or a two-parent household with one child "where missing one paycheck would put them in dire financial state."


Those households would have to prioritize necessities, such as lights, meals, housing, or utilities "in order to survive," he added.


Nearly two years after moving to the area, Sandra — who requested to keep her last name concealed — has found herself choosing between buying food and paying utilities, or finding another, preferably cheaper, place to live.


"I pay $1,180 a month, $295 a week (in rent) — that's my paycheck," Sandra said. "This is killing me. I got to find a place to live."


Three weeks ago she moved in the three-bedroom mobile home at the former Sappy Lane mobile home park on Bob Little and 6th Street. The $1,180 monthly rent does not include utilities and tenants are required to maintain the yard or be hit with a $50 fine. She said she has about $20 left over from her paycheck and usually uses it for food, though she knows her utility payment is about to be due.


As a construction worker and security guard who typically is paid weekly, she said she was forced to find a place quickly when motels were shut down due to the state's COVID-19 restrictions.


"This is the only place I could find," Sandra said, noting she did not need three bedrooms, but thought she would fair better making a weekly rental fee over a large sum each month. "It was all (the area) had to offer, and I had to get out of the motels because they were closing down because of the virus."


Holding an eviction notice effective May 1, she shook her head at a near loss of words. She said she is far worse than she was two years ago when at least affordable housing and lodging were available locally.


"When I told (the landlord) I couldn't pay the rent, this was on my door the next day," she said. "This is what I got to deal with."


According to a financial hardship study cited by United Way, the cost of survival does not meet the average annual wage.


For Bay County, 40% of households fell within the category, which, though still dire, was significantly better than the other counties in the region. Calhoun County had the highest rate with 62%, followed by Jackson County at 58%, and Gulf, Holmes, and Washington County are 57%.


Contributing factors across all counties were the same, McVay said.


"There's not a lot of high paying industrial type jobs. The income has not kept up with the cost of living," McVay said.


The gradual income-cost of living disparity was exacerbated in the recovery from Hurricane Michael. McVay said, though data is not yet available, the situation is glaring.


"The cost of living went up exponentially after the hurricane," he said. "Rent went up due to the scarcity of availability" of housing.


"The cost of living has gone up and the overall wage has not caught up with the cost of living," McVay added later, referring to the situation before the storm. "It's difficult for people to be able to make ends meet that way."


Still, there are families that say things are starting to look promising. The Katzenburger family lives at a camper park, also on Bob Little Road, where they are leasing rent-to-own at $1,000 a month, utilities and trash included. Husband and wife Andrew and Jaime said they see progress from where they were two years ago, even though work has slowed down.


"We’re just letting the Lord lead us," said Jaime, who worked at a local grocery store until the pandemic hit and she had to "take a leave of absence" out of caution for the couple’s two children.


"We feel we’re on the right path at the right time, the way things are going and it’s just the way it’s meant to be," interjected Andrew, a carpenter.


The four-member family moved to the area right after the hurricane, towing what they could from their hometown in Georgia in a 10-foot camper. Over time that cramped camper was traded for a larger one and now into a roomy fifth-wheel camper.


"To us, this is an accomplishment. We definitely feel good about it because we have worked ourselves down to the dirt," Andrew Katzenburger said, noting they took no shortcuts. "In a year or two, if we keep it up like so, this thing will be ours completely."


FOUR YEARS AGO: Census: Poverty levels rose in Bay County


"Like this, my kids are taken care of," he added shaking his hands toward the sky. "After our bills are paid for, if we want anything else, we have to go out and get it."


The couple spoke of keeping strength as a family and community at a time when the world is struggling, particularly during the pandemic. Walking behind her husband’s lawn chair, Jaime pulled out a sculpture of three crosses carved out of reclaimed wood from the storm. They said they will continue to hold on and know, soon, they’ll move into a brick-and-motor home.


"It’s been a wild ride, but here we are," Jaime Katzenburger said. "This is us and it will get bigger and better, it’ll just take a little time."


In the news release announcing the ALICE report and the spiking number of families that have been added to the category, United Way of Northwest Florida calls on stakeholders to address the growing disparity between income and cost of living by removing "obstacles to financial stability, identify gaps in community resources and build data-driven solutions to help ALICE families achieve economic stability, bolstering the state’s economy overall."


"We're trying to bring attention to the fact that the majority of the people that our agency serves fall in this category. That's a large number of people," McVay said. "And that’s what we’re here for, to fund raise in order to better serve our agencies."


For more information about United Way of Northwest Florida go online to UnitedWayNWFL.org.