Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 17, 2013

Report profiles childhood poverty

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A recent report on child poverty shows kids living in Grand Traverse, Benzie and Leelanau counties are faring better than average, while families in Kalkaska and Antrim are still struggling.

Kids Count in Michigan reported in a study released this morning that about one in four children in the state lived in poverty in 2011, defined as $18,000 for a family of three or $23,000 for a family of four.

The rate was even higher in Antrim and Benzie counties, with nearly one out of three children living in poverty.

The report focused not only on poverty but a range of indicators from education to obesity. In Antrim County, 161.4 children per 1,000 lived in homes investigated in 2012 for abuse or neglect. That compares to the statewide average of 90 children per 1,000, the highest rate in 22 years, the report said.

Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties were bright spots in the report. They ranked as the state’s fifth and eighth best in the state, based on the percentage of children up to the age of five who qualified for food aid.

But Ty Wessell, coordinator of the Leelanau County Family Coordinating Council, was disturbed by the county’s declining child population. The county’s overall population increased by 2.3 percent from 2005 to 2011 while the number of children up to age 17 went down by 681 children, or 14.6 percent.

“It’s a challenge for school districts, obviously. It’s an indicator that we need to figure out a way to attract and employ younger families,” Wessell said. “We do know that Leelanau County is becoming more of a senior county, and I think it’s related to the availability of jobs and the transportation costs to get to low-paying jobs in the Traverse City area.”

Leelanau’s unemployment rate was an encouraging 7.4 percent in 2012, but Wessell worries young families must struggle to pay the fair market rate of $823 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to a Michigan League for Public Policy report.

Grand Traverse County ranked comparatively high in the state, but its rate of poverty has increased by 69 percent since 2005, the report said.

“On a positive note, obesity and infant mortality are going down,” said Mary Manner, the five-county coordinator for the Great Start Collaborative. “We are not making much progress in maternal smoking. Moms are still smoking, and we are working together to do something about that.”

Young children are the most vulnerable to poverty because their brains and bodies are growing so fast. That makes it vital to ensure there’s a safety net and for employers to pay a living wage, she said.

“You are literally creating the foundation for who they’re going to be as adults,” she said.

Behind the statistics are people like Chelsea Pfau, 20, who was Christmas shopping Monday morning at the Father Fred Foundation for a Toys for Tots gift for her 14-month-old daughter. She said her mother struggled while she grew up, and she’s used to being resourceful.

Pfau’s job is right next to her apartment so she can get by without a car. She said she earns minimum wage and has college debt to pay back before returning to school for a cosmetology degree.

“These places give you hope not to give up and keep going. Things will get better eventually,” Pfau said.

Laura Zann was waiting for her turn to shop for her 4 1/2 year old daughter, Alexandria, at Father Fred. Her unlucky break came when she was fired in June after her employer learned she was pregnant.

“What they did was wrong,” said Zann, who plans to return to work after the birth of her baby boy.

All five counties have seen a steady upward march of children in poverty from 2005 to 2011.

The increase is due, in part, to the state of Michigan significantly reducing its “tremendous partnership” between the Department of Human Services and Michigan Works to help those on welfare get a job, said Mary Marois, former DHS director for Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties.

“There just isn’t the money going to Michigan Works to be able to spend a significant part of their mission to helping people on welfare,” she said.

Kalkaska ranked 63rd in the state out of 83 counties, based on the percentage of young children receiving food aid.

That number reflects the county’s economic struggle with a 2012 unemployment rate of 9.6 percent and a median income of $38,053, which is below the 2011 state average of $45,931.

“That plays into the poverty aspect,” said Kevin Hughes, deputy health officer for District Health Department No. 10.

Benzie County also had a high 2012 unemployment rate of 10 percent, but ranked 11th best in the state. Its median income is $45,998, nearly on par with the state. Benzie also reported the most improved student test scores in the five-county area.