STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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What is life like for Michigan's rural poor families?

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

What's life like for Michigan's rural poor? The folks over at Bridge Magazine have been looking into that question and the answer is far from rosy. We're talking incredibly high rates of child homelessness, poor health outcomes, and few employment opportunities.

The Bridge series starts with a profile of Lake County, arguably the poorest county in Michigan. 

Although the last recession officially ended in June 2009, many rural areas still are far from recovered. For some people in Lake County, the recession was another blip in a long history of destitution. “There’s just no economic opportunity,” [University of Michigan social work professor H. Luke] Shaefer said. “A lot of the jobs we used to think of as unskilled are now skilled. A tractor is now a computer. Transportation is a huge problem. If you don’t have a car, it’s pretty tough to get around.” Food pantries, social service agencies and other programs are harder for rural residents to access because they often lack transportation. Some federal anti-poverty programs, such as Community Development Block Grants and Community Health Centers, were designed more to help the poor in larger cities.

We here at State of Opportunity also spent some time in Lake County. We went last summer. It's a beautiful part of the state, no doubt, but you turn down pretty much any street and it's hard to escape how tough life is for the folks who live there. Many of the houses – shacks, really – are in disrepair, and businesses on the main drag have "closed" signs in the window.

I spoke with Mary Trucks when I was up there. She's the director of FiveCap, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents. She says Lake County tends to attract the very old and the very young, "so what we do not have is a very large labor force that would attract industry." One young father I spoke with agreed with Trucks. The 24-year old dad to two little girls said "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." 

Speaking of children, according to Bridge Magazine's coverage, the number of homeless children is on the rise, especially in Michigan's more rural communities.

One county, Isabella, has the highest poverty rate in Michigan at 32.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those figures, however, are likely inflated by the number of Central Michigan University students living in the area. Even without counting college students, Isabella County’s poverty rate of 18 percent is higher than Michigan’s statewide average of 16.3 percent and the national average of 14.9 percent. The rate among the county’s 2,143 Native Americans is 27 percent, the Census Bureau found.

Bridge reporter Pat Shellenbarger profiles a woman whose job it is to find and help homeless children in four largely rural regions in central Michigan: Montcalm, Ionia, Isabella and Gratiot. The woman's name is Brenda Greenhoe and last year she located a staggering number of homeless kids: 1,550.

“It’s a little less obvious when you drive around rural areas, because you don’t see them,” she said. “The poverty is here, but you have to drive on some pretty rough back roads to find it. You’ll run across people who are sleeping in their vehicle on state land or in a tent. “I see the poverty. It’s right here in my face every day.”

Disheartening, to say the least.

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.
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