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

When working hard doesn't necessarily get you ahead

Melissa and Jeffrey Rice, with their son Andreux.

I don’t know you. I don’t know what your life is like. But if there is an average you, that is, an average NPR listener, I can guess that odds are, you are not poor.

At least, that’s what our audience research tells us. You’re educated; you’re well off.

It may not be true for you.

But if it is true, let’s assume two things: One, you already know life is hard for people in poverty. But, two, you still have no idea what it’s like to live with poverty day after day.

You have no idea just how many little things can conspire to keep people from climbing out of poverty.

Unless you talk to someone who’s trying to do it.  

So, let me introduce you to Melissa and Jeffery Rice and their two kids, Andreux and Leah.

Money is tight for the Rices. On hot days, they mostly hang out in the small living room of their second-story apartment, huddled around the air conditioning box. Melissa and Jeffrey are incredibly resourceful. Jeffrey fixes cars for extra cash. Melissa sells plasma twice a week.

“It’s just an extra couple bucks,” Melissa says. “Diapers, milk on the table.”

The Rices do things like this because, a few months ago, Jeffrey lost his job.

At the time, he was trying to take over custody of his daughter Leah. And he had to drive her to school every day. Which made him late for his job at a steakhouse, which didn’t go over well.

“They were like, ‘One or the other,' you know what I mean?” says Jeffrey. “And I was like, I can’t do this then.”

Just think: If you’ve got a college degree and you’re on salary, would taking your daughter to school really be a major factor in losing your job?

The Rices are managing to bounce back. Jeffrey just started a new job at a different restaurant. And they were also lucky that the custody case with Leah moved quickly through the courts.

The courts are a place where being poor can really hurt you. Especially if you’re there dealing with the foster care system.

“If you go down to Detroit, to Flint, you will see that the foster care system is a system designed for poor people,” says University of Michigan law professor Vivek Sankaran. He’s also director of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy. He deals with a lot of foster care cases.

“You will rarely see a family with means stuck in that system,” he says.

Sankaran says most of the cases he deals with don’t involve parents who do horrible things. They involve parents who don’t have resources.

He tells the story of a mother who lost her children because she left them at home for 20 minutes while she went to the laundromat. The kids were 10, 8 and 5 years old. The mom didn’t have money for child care.

Then there was the mom in Detroit who was the victim of domestic violence. She didn’t have the money, or the legal knowledge to get a protection order to keep the abuser away. Her kids were put in foster care for a year.

And there’s Alexander Mitchell, who had a history of alcohol abuse and bad decision-making. His kids were taken away. Then, Mitchell cleaned up. He had a job at Wal-Mart, he obeyed all orders from the court. But the court still took away his parental rights. The reason? Mitchell was living with his sister and couldn’t afford a place of his own.

“And it was a rare example where, the unstated assumption that is present in so many cases about poverty - that the parent was too poor to parent - this judge actually verbalized it, and said that, as a person working at Wal-Mart, he didn’t make enough money,” Sankaran says.

The Michigan Supreme Court overturned that decision in 2009.

But Sankaran says cases like Mitchell’s are more common than anyone would like to think. And we could go on with other kinds of problems. Stories of transportation problems, stories of not being able to pay court fees, or parking tickets. The little problems that snowball into big ones.

You run into problems too. Even if you’re the educated, well-off average NPR listener, you’re not immune to money problems.

But when you don’t have much to start with, problems come up more often. They snowball more quickly.

And so, if you’re trying to raise kids and give them a better opportunity in life, those opportunities are just a lot harder to come by.

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.