By JEREMY WAHR
Capital News Service
LANSING — Childhood poverty in Michigan has decreased in recent years, but people living near the poverty line still face many hardships.
About 444,100 children, or 20 percent of the children in Michigan, still live in poverty, according to the Kids Count in Michigan 2018 Data Book. The numbers are down from 2010, when 537,003 children lived in poverty.
But, simply living above the poverty line doesn’t mean children won’t face challenges. Child development requires safe housing, reliable transportation, nutritious food, quality child care and education, said Terri Legg, executive director of the United Way Montcalm-Ionia Counties.
These support systems can be hard to find in many rural areas, said Dave Wingard, director of research and strategic development at TrueNorth Community Services, based in Newaygo.
In Montcalm and Ionia Counties, between 17 and 23 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to Kids Count. In Newaygo County, between 24 and 28 percent of its population lives in poverty.
Poverty itself is a complex topic, Wingard said. The disappearance of middle-wage and middle-skill jobs from rural communities make it more difficult to move out of poverty, he said.
Nearly 40 percent of Michigan residents and nearly 50 percent of residents of Montcalm and Ionia counties have limited income but still work, Legg said. These families live from paycheck to paycheck and are one crisis away from poverty.
“These are the men and women of all ages and races who get up each day to go to work, but who face tough financial choices,” Legg said. “Challenges for these families are not liberal, Republican, Democratic or Independent issues.”
In Newaygo County, 42 percent of the population face the same challenges, Wingard said. Children raised in these environments begin to carry short-term survival attitudes, such as valuing food for its quantity, physically fighting to solve problems and seeing people as possessions.
They are likely to pass these values down to their children, creating generational poverty, Wingard said.
Ionia, Montcalm and Newaygo counties ranked 24th, 38th and 52nd in overall child well being, respectively, among the 83 Michigan counties, according to Kids Count. Although Montcalm and Ionia ranked relatively high, one in four children in Montcalm County and one in five in Ionia County are “food insecure,” Legg said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.
Food insecure families cannot afford food, which causes their children to lack the proper nutrition, Legg said. That leads to poorer school performance and higher absenteeism.
“There is no one answer that will fix poverty,” Legg said. “The problems are complicated and interwoven. Real change requires identifying where barriers exist and understand how they are connected. Only then can we make necessary changes to remove those barriers.”
Among these barriers are access to higher paying jobs, affordable housing and benefits that more people can receive, Legg said. Kids Count found that 31 percent of Michigan children live in families without year-round, full-time employment.
Both Legg and Kids Count recommend stronger workforce development for lower income families, saying that would lead to higher wages and more stable work hours.
Many nonprofits and government assistance programs are great, Legg said, but many poor people don’t qualify to participate. The assistance programs also need to be more flexible, in order to help families going through crises.
“If you are mindful of our very own neighbors, and the friends, family and coworkers that might be struggling, we can create understanding, and with understanding comes compassion,” Legg said. “Ultimately if more households were financially stable, Michigan’s economy would be stronger and our communities would be more vibrant.”
To help children living in poverty, Legg recommends donating and volunteering with food pantries. She says that helping at a food pantry can be rewarding, and it is, but a cash donation can be just as helpful.
“A giant misconception is that poverty means people are lazy,” Legg said. “That is far from the truth. In our area, homelessness does not carry a sign or stand on a corner. It is working a full-time job and living in a car or tent on state land. It is going to school full time and sleeping on your friends’ couches.”