WUOMFM

rural poverty

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

We do a lot of stories about what’s not working in education, but today we’re going to flip the script and talk about a school that’s doing really well, especially for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. It’s a rural school called Brimley Elementary in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Andrew Droz Palermo

We don't do a lot of movie reviews at State of Opportunity. In fact, we've only ever done one.

What makes the documentary Rich Hill worth watching is also what makes it rare and worth talking or writing about.

It is raw and not sentimental, but neither is it hopeless. The film won the top documentary prize at Sundance this year.

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. 

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

College is expensive. For some families, it’s prohibitively expensive. Several school districts are trying to follow the Kalamazoo Promise model by offering students money to help cover tuition costs, including one such "promise" in rural northern Michigan's Lake County.

"A dirt road with lots of bumps"

If you had asked Lake County high school senior Kaitlyn Bolles last fall to describe her thoughts on college, she’d describe it as "a dirt road with lots of bumps." Translation? "I don’t feel like I’m ready, I don’t feel like I can handle it, I don’t feel like I can afford it, and I don’t feel like I’m smart enough to go right now," explains Bolles.

Bolles has spent most of her life in the village of Baldwin in central northern Michigan’s Lake County. The bubbly 18-year old loves it here and she’s very close with her family. Since there’s no higher ed option in Lake County, she would have to move, which can be scary. Not to mention the cost. Lake County is the poorest county in Michigan; paying for college is out of reach for many families here.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

More than 90% of school children in Lake County qualify for free or reduced price lunch. To make sure they continue to eat healthy meals once school is out, the county’s school district offers free breakfast and lunch over the summer to any child in the county.

When I dropped by the cafeteria around 11:45 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning, dozens of kids from Lake County were winding their way into the school cafeteria at Baldwin Elementary.

They’re here for the summer school meals program called "Meet Up & Eat Up." There are hundreds of these programs across the state, one in almost every county. On tap today for lunch is milk (chocolate is by far the most popular with this crowd), followed by turkey and cheese sandwiches, carrots, apples and bananas.

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.

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."

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

I'm in Lake County this week and next working on a series of stories about rural poverty in Michigan. When it comes to child well-being, this part of the state has some serious struggles.

Kids Count data

When I think of kids in poverty, my mind more often than not conjures up an image of a child in some kind of urban setting. And our stories at State of Opportunity tend to reflect that. We've done tons of reports from Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Flint, Detroit and its suburbs.