STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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New report says outcomes for African-American kids in Michigan are among the worst in the country

Annie E. Casey Foundation, Race for Results report


This week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a national report that caught our eye. 

The report is part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count series. Kids Count tracks a number of indicators – things like birthweight, school test scores, poverty level, and college attendance.

This new report includes 12 indicators in all, and they’ve been combined to come up with an index score for overall child outcomes. Those scores were then broken down by race, and each state was ranked.

For Michigan, there was a surprise. 

"The surprise is that kids, African-American children in Michigan, are worse off than every other state in the country, except for two: Mississippi and Wisconsin," says Jane Zehnder-Merrell, project director of Kids Count in Michigan.

Zehnder-Merrell says the report shows outcomes for white kids in Michigan lagging behind national averages, while Latino, Native American and Asian and Pacific Islander kids have better than average outcomes in Michigan.

But outcomes for African-American kids in Michigan are abysmally low. Zehnder-Merrell says it’s a widespread problem.  

"Detroit is the poster child," she says. "But it isn’t just Detroit."

On Monday, as we had our first dose of spring weather, I found Amber and BwalyaMusenge pushing their two toddler children in a brown stroller along Fuller Avenue in Grand Rapids. I explained the report and asked them to guess how Michigan ranked in outcomes for black children.

"Fifty-fifty," Amber Musenge said.

Then, I showed them the results.

"That’s bad," Amber said. "That's really bad."

"Is that surprising to you?" I asked Bwalya. 

"No it’s not," he said.

Bwalya is black. He was born in Zambia. Amber is white. 

They told me about their neighborhood, the Baxter neighborhood of Grand Rapids. 

"You see cops everywhere," Amber Musenge says. "You see people outside screaming at everybody." 

One of the reasons Michigan scores so low in outcomes for black children is the number of black kids in Michigan living in areas of concentrated poverty.

The Baxter neighborhood is one of those areas. It's 70% African-American. And more than 30% of people in the neighborhood live below the poverty line.

Amber and Bwalya both work. They say they have to work lots of overtime just to survive. And they hope they’ll be out of this neighborhood before their children are old enough for school.

"Look at our schools," says Shakira, a high school student who lives in Grand Rapids. "We ain’t got no good schools."

I met Shakira and her brother, Andre, at the bus stop outside Woodland Mall in Kentwood to talk about the new Kids Count report. They first thought the report was trying to say that black kids in Michigan haven’t tried hard enough.

"They saying we bad?" Shakira asks me. 

As teenagers, Shakira and Andre are taught that how hard they try matters. So when they hear that Michigan's African-American kids are falling behind, their first thought is to blame the kids. 

'I'm not trying to be racist or nothing, but look at like the white people school, like East Grand Rapids ... they got more than what we got," says Shakira, a black teenager who goes to school in Grand Rapids Public Schools, a district with a graduation rate around 50%.

But Shakira also sees how race affects her chances.  She sees it at her school, which she describes as a black school.  

"It just seems like they don’t got money," she says. "I’m not trying to be racist or nothing, but look at like the white people school, like East Grand Rapids ... they got more than what we got."

The school district she’s talking about, East Grand Rapids, is 90% white. The graduation rate is 95%. Grand Rapids Public Schools are about 36% African-American. Graduation rate is about 50%.

Those kinds of statistics affect college attendance, which is another indicator of why African-American kids are doing worse in Michigan compared to other states. Shakira says she knows she’s going to college. She wants to be a lawyer. But if the numbers are right, it’ll be harder for her growing up in Michigan than if she grew up somewhere else. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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