I'm in Lake County this week and next working on a series of stories about rural poverty in Michigan. When it comes to child well-being, this part of the state has some serious struggles. The county is among the poorest in the state, and it has the unwanted distinction of having both the state's highest rate of childhood poverty (45%) and the highest rate of children who qualify for free and reduced school lunch (97%).
But I have to say, what the area lacks in wealth it makes up for in beauty. It has over 150 lakes and more than 45 trout streams, and everywhere you look there are trees, trees and more trees. That's because a large swath of the county is covered by the Manistee National Forest.
One gentleman I spoke to at the Lake County Historical Museum says folks have been coming to Lake County since the Civil War to swim in the lakes and fish in the streams, but they've done little as far as making economic contributions to the area. And because the majority of the county is forest land, there's little room for big industry to bloom, which means fewer good-paying, stable jobs for locals.
Still, the county is trying to improve things for its residents. Most recently there's been a push to get more children to go to college. Less than 10% of the population holds a college degree, according to the most recent U.S. Census numbers. The school district is hoping its relatively new "Baldwin Promise" scholarship (which provides each graduating high school senior with up to $20,000 for four years of college) will encourage more student to pursue an associate's or bachelor's degree. Randy Howes is the former superintendent of Baldwin Community Schools and one of the main guys behind the Baldwin Promise, which started in 2010. He knows the Promise isn't "a magic pill," but he firmly believes that helping kids get to college will help them focus on their future, help them land better jobs and become part of the workforce, and help the community get on its way to "breaking that cycle of poverty."