STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Meet a young boy and his mom, both caught in the cycle of poverty

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

What would it take so that all kids in Michigan have the chance to reach their full potential?

To help us find some answers, we're doing things a little bit differently.

Sure, we're talking to national experts and researchers about what does and does not work when it comes to overcoming poverty. But we're also spending time with real people who are struggling to get ahead.

Our goal is to follow several kids and families over the course of the three-year project to better understand what challenges they face, what resources are available, and where the gaps are. 

Here's a preview of one of the families we've been spending time with:

Angela was kind enough to let me into her two-bedroom apartment in Highland Park a couple weeks ago. I visited her on one of those scorchingly hot days where the heat was just unbearable, so we plopped down on a sofa in her living room and did our entire first interview right there in front of her air conditioning unit.

Angela, 21, is pregnant and has a three-year old boy named Derrion. He's got a crazy amount of energy and spent the majority of the interview bouncing around like the springiest frog you've ever seen. He's also a big fan of toy cars.

At this point in his life, Derrion's mom is the most important person in his little toddler world, and his future depends in large part on her. And since so much of our lives are shaped by our past experiences, I wanted to know what Angela's life was like when she was growing up in hopes of better understanding what it might mean for Derrion.

Angela says she "had a weird, hard life" growing up in Detroit with her mom and four sisters. Her Mom didn't work; they lived off of food stamps and Section 8 housing. All but two of Angela’s sisters had different dads. Angela says her dad ran the streets and was only around for one or two birthdays. As for her mom? "She always bought herself something before she bought us something. So we had to fend for ourselves. And it’s sad, it’s sad when you know your mamma don’t like you."

So Angela says she had to fend for herself and figure out how to make some money. She started doing hair when she was 13, but by the time she was 17 she had started selling drugs. Eventually she got caught and the police took her to a juvenile detention facility in Detroit.

That's when she found out she was pregnant with Derrion.

Now, three years later, Derrion’s life looks a lot like his Mom’s did when she was growing up: food stamps, cash assistance, Section 8 apartment in Highland Park. And like a lot of kids living in poverty – Darrion’s Mom has no high school diploma, no job, and no dad in the picture.

Statistically, the chances aren’t that great that Derrion and his baby sister are going to make it out of poverty as adults. This study by the Brookings Institute found 42 percent of children raised in poverty stay in poverty as adults.

So what chance do they have to reach their full potential?

We hope to continue to follow Derrion and his baby sister to see what it would take to improve opportunities for them and the thousands of other Michigan kids living in poverty.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.