Lansing grappling with high poverty rate

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By Jack Ritchey
Listen Up Lansing Staff Reporter

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Lansing, at 29.4 percent, has a higher rate of people in poverty than bordering states’ capitals, the state of Michigan, and the United States.

Richard Robertson, PhD, an ecological economist and associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, says the higher poverty rate in Lansing compared to other nearby state capitals is a part of the economic structure of the cities.

“The economy of the greater Lansing area has historically been concentrated in a few areas — namely state government, higher education and the manufacturing industry. While employment in the first two sectors has been mostly stable, the statewide decline in the manufacturing industry between 2000 and 2012 brought numerous Lansing businesses down with it,” Robertson said.

While the data on Lansing can sound and look bleak, it’s important to pay attention to the trend of the past couple years, which has shown that the area is headed in the right direction.

According to the multitude of data on The Michigan League for Public Policy’s website, child poverty and overall poverty have been declining in Ingham county since 2012, with unemployment declining in the same area since 2009.

Lansing, like the rest of Michigan, suffered heavy manufacturing job losses since 2000 with the decline of the auto industry in the state and nationally.

“The closure of several automobile plants and related businesses in the Lansing area around 2005-2006 just preceded a deep and persistent national economic recession that left thousands unemployed in the region, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Those blue-collar, industrial jobs in the manufacturing sector have not returned, and although unemployment rates have fallen in Michigan, for many of those who lost their manufacturing jobs, finding employment has not been easy.”

Robertson said the other three bordering states’ capitals – Madison, Indianapolis and Columbus — have more diverse economies that include health care, finance, insurance, and tourism – sectors that have been more resilient to the recession. According to him, this has perhaps helped these cities to keep poverty rates relatively low.

Furthermore, citing lower poverty rates in Lansing’s Ingham County’s neighbors, Eaton and Clinton, Robertson explains why he thinks the city’s poverty is a very local problem.
“It is not clear to me that this is a priority for the City of Lansing directly; the city has been aggressive in advancing economic development. The city faces a problem related to numerous brownfields, related to the legacy of the shuttered manufacturing plants that make economic development challenging,” Robertson said.

A brownfield is a property that may have hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants present. Robertson concludes that more needs to be done soon if Lansing hopes to better the situation.

“The state has made brownfield redevelopment a priority, through both the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. I suppose that could have some indirect effect on poverty reduction in the long-term, but the severity of the issue may require more immediate action,” Robertson said.

Taven Thuma is a kinesiology junior at Michigan State University who grew up on the south side of Lansing. She often makes the short trip home from East Lansing during the summer.

“It’s a very poor area,” said Thuma, 20. “Most of the kids in my high school had free or reduced lunch.”

She offered her views on some of the possible reasons, such as there being few jobs available, behind poverty in the Lansing area.

“I believe the poverty rate is so high in Lansing due to the limited amount of jobs in this area. We have [General Motors] and the Meijer warehouse but other than that there is no more factories around here.”

Thuma said she knows of a few things the city does or has done to better the situation.

“I haven’t really seen the city doing much for people in poverty besides the Greater Lansing Food Bank being a thing. Also they do a school supplies thing as well – everything someone needs for school in a backpack like folders, notebooks, pencils, etcetera.”

The Child and Family Charities are currently running a “Fill the Backpack” campaign to help underprivileged children in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties.

Thuma said she also remembers helping out in high school.

“I had a teacher in high school who, every year, ran a food drive. While I was in the [National Honor Society] we did a lot with doing canned food drives and stuff like that.”

Perhaps taking away positives from a negative situation, Thuma made it clear she won’t soon forget her upbringing in a poor area of Lansing.

“I definitely believe the amount of poverty has affected my life greatly – due to seeing a lot of people in my town dealing with poverty, I have always known the value of a dollar. I also got the Lansing promise scholarship, so part of my first two years at MSU are free and my first two years at LCC were free.”

The Lansing Promise Scholarship gives qualified high school students in the area a considerable amount of tuition toward a degree at Michigan State University or Lansing Community College.

The scholarship may be a small part of a possible major solution for Lansing — bringing in more highly educated people, which in turn leads to higher salaries and less poverty.

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