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Families & Community

Lake County has a wealth of natural beauty but few job opportunities

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Lake County in central northern Michigan is the poorest part of the state, with nearly half of all its children living in poverty. That’s according to the latest Kids Count data. So I went north to visit the rural county to see what life is like there for families.

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
The Pere Marquette River runs through Lake County

Before I introduce you to some of the current residents of Lake County, there are two things you need to know about the area:

  1. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, with hundreds of lakes and streams and endless acres of forestland. 
  2. Lake County wasn’t always poor. In fact, back in the late 1800s, things were relatively booming.

Here to give us a little history lesson is Bruce Micinski, president of the Lake County Historical Society.
"The first big boom would’ve been the Civil War soldiers...they could get 80 and 160 acres of land from the government," says Micinski. "They were trying to give opportunities to these soldiers in starting up farmland in Lake County."

"The area's been more of an area where people have taken advantage of its resources, but moved on." - Bruce Micinski, president of the Lake County Historical Museum

Next came the rich lumber barons and with them the hundreds of immigrants they hired to work in the logging camps. But when all the trees were cut down, the lumber barons fled and the immigrants moved elsewhere to find work. Wealthy resort types still came to visit, but pretty much stayed just long enough to fish in the streams and soak up the sun on the lakes.

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
The Pere Marquette River runs through Lake County

"The area’s been more of an area where people have taken advantage of its resources, but moved on," explains Micinski. "If you come to Lake County, even those these wealthy men came here, we have nothing but memories and stories to tell; we didn’t reap any benefit financially from these people."

Fast forward to today, the lakes and streams and forest land are still here. But save for a prison that was closed in 2005, big industry hasn’t reappeared, and neither have the jobs. Mary Trucks is director of FiveCap, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents.

"Lake County seems to attract the very old and very young, so what we do not have is a very large labor force that would attract industry," says Trucks. What's left, she adds, is a county with a “systemic poverty condition.”

That's something 34-year old Christina Barnard knows all too well. She was born and raised in the Lake County town of Baldwin.

"We were very poor growing up, always had food stamps. Times where we didn’t have electricity or hot water, stuff like that. Most people here in Baldwin were like that."

"If you really want to have a bright future, I don't think Baldwin's the place to stay because there's just not a lot here." - Zack Smith, Lake County resident

Barnard and her three children just moved into a Section 8 apartment. Before that, they were couch surfing and staying in homeless shelters on and off for six years. Barnard worked most recently as a Certified Nurse’s Aide about 40 minutes away in Big Rapids. She says she had to quit because her car’s on its last legs, and, like a lot of rural counties, mass public transit doesn’t exist. So as far as she sees it, her only hope is to wait for a job to open up nearby until she has money to get a car.

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Job opportunities are scarce in Baldwin and throughout the county.

As for her children, she wants them to move out of Baldwin when they can. She hopes they find a place where "there's more options...and jobs where they can settle down with a career and hopefully do better than I did."

Zach Smith agrees. The 24-year old is the proud father of two little girls and he says "if you really want to have a bright future, I don’t think Baldwin’s the place to stay because there’s just not a lot here." Smith and his fiancee are expecting another little baby this December. Meantime, Smith goes to work everyday, earning $14 an hour as a cook at a local nursing home. His goal is to save enough money to get him and his family out of Lake County for good.

"If you want something extra for your kids, you’re gonna have to branch out and go somewhere different," says Smith. "That’s my plan. This is like a starting place, then you move on."

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