STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Five takeaways from our reporting on poverty

Brendan Riley

In America, we say we believe every child should have the opportunity to succeed, no matter where they live or how much money is in their parents' bank account.

But not all kids have access to opportunity, and low-income families are repeatedly at a disadvantage.

State of Opportunity has devoted close to three years investigating the barriers low-income kids face in trying to get ahead in Michigan.

We think it's time for a look back at what we’ve learned so far.

You can't overestimate the impact poverty has on kids. It can affect the way kids talk, the kind of food they eat, and even the way their brain develops. A baby’s economic background can actually affect their chance of survival. For older kids, growing up during the Great Recession has actually changed the way kids look at life. Living in poverty can be traumatic for kids, and make it more difficult for kids to overcome whatever trauma they face.

Poverty and higher education are locked in a battle. Higher Education is a way out of poverty, but poverty is actually keeping people out of college. Even when kids from low-income families make it on campus, it can be really difficult to stay there and be poor at an elite university. For those lucky enough to graduate in Michigan, they’ll likely leave with some of the highest debt levels in the nation. Universities are starting to embrace students from low-income backgrounds and improving the services they offer. But this doesn’t benefit all students, since Michigan has limited access to education for adultsand those in need of scholarships. (If education isn’t the answer, how else can you get out of poverty? Move.)

Accessing services when you’re living in poverty can be really tricky.Finding safe, quality child care or getting a loancan be tough for low-income families. For those who receive government benefits, getting kicked off cash assistance (it happens more often than you’d think) can put families in a dire situation. Of course there are services, likefree lunch that are readily available. But transportation problems and a digital dividethat causes an information gapcan keep families from knowing help is out there.

Michigan is a tough place to be poor. Michigan does a poor job with consumer debt protection. Black kids in Michigan have some of the worst outcomes in the country.Suburban poverty is growing in unexpected areas, like Grand Rapids. (Poverty is a persistent problem in the state's rural areas, too). Poor families were the hardest hit by the Great Recession and low-income neighborhoods suffered the most. Many are still struggling today, years later.

The way we think and talk about poverty matters.There’s a reason why we’re more likely to help one person get out of poverty than an entire city, for example. There are visible historical misconceptions and stigmas associated with being poor, and some still exist today. There is a lot of misunderstanding around welfare, especially how it differs state to state.  Poverty can be thought of as invisible, and these thoughts make the people living in poverty invisible, too.

What does culture have to do with it? For the next State of Opportunity special, we are focusing on ideas about the culture of poverty. We want your help. Are you someone who grew up in a low-income neighborhood? Can you remember a time when you wanted to leave your hometown and get as far away as you could? Did you come back? If so, drop us a line.

If you think of yourself as being poor, or can identify a time in your life when you were living in poverty, we want to know when you came to that realization. Did it change the way you felt about yourself? Did it change the way you thought about the world? Let us know in the comments below or by e-mailing or

Related Content