Lynn Heemstra has been working to improve the lives of Grand Rapids children since 1998. As executive director of Our Community’s Children, a nonprofit advocacy agency, Heemstra has seen some success in getting youths into after-school programs and other means of preparing them for college and careers.
But when the Kids Count Data Book comes out each year, she is reminded of how much work remains to be done.
“What this report shows me every time is we still have a long ways to go,” Heemstra said of the Kids Count in Michigan Data Book 2015, released Feb. 19. “Michigan families are still struggling. And we have such a growing divide between those that have and have not.”
The report painted a grim picture of child poverty in Michigan, and Kent County in particular. Nearly one in four Michigan children lived in an impoverished home in 2012, an increase of 35 percent from 2006. Kent County saw an even greater increase, as children living in poverty jumped by 40 percent.
And while there were some encouraging trends in education, nearly half the county’s students qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches – higher than the state average and a 27 percent increase over six years. Infants and young children whose families qualify for food stamps rose by 29 percent.
“Until the poverty issue is addressed across society, some things will never change.” – Carol Paine-McGovern, Kent School Services Network
Despite improvements in fourth-grade reading and high school graduation rates, the numbers are a sobering splash of reality for those who work to reduce poverty’s impact on students.
“It’s encouraging to see the improvement,” said Carol Paine-McGovern, executive director of the Kent School Services Network (a community school model bringing direct services into schools). “It continues to be discouraging to see poverty has increased at such an alarming rate over the past six years.
“Until the poverty issue is addressed across society,” she added, “some things will never change.”
Poverty’s ‘Toxic Effect’ on Children
The Michigan report, released by the Michigan League for Public Policy, is part of the nationwide Kids Count project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation tracking child and family well-being. The 26th annual national report is due out in July.
Michigan League officials framed the report as a continuation of disturbing trends at a time when state lawmakers are reducing help for families. They cited a 70 percent reduction in the state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families, lifetime limits on cash assistance and restrictions on federal food aid.
The tax credit would be restored to 2010 levels if voters pass Proposal 1, the road maintenance proposal that would increase the sales tax by 1 cent. Lawmakers added restoration of the earned income tax credit to the proposal to offset the impact of a sales tax increase, which hits lower-income families the hardest.
“The unraveling of a family’s economic security cries out to be addressed by state leaders, but what’s happened is just the opposite of what is needed,” said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count in Michigan Project Director, in a press release.
Stressing the “toxic effect of poverty on children,” the report cites research that children growing up poor are “more likely to drop out of school and less likely to have stable employment as adults.”
Those effects and others have been highlighted by School News Network’s continuing series on poverty in Kent County public schools. Factors ranging from lack of transportation and inadequate medical care to poor nutrition affect students in the Kent ISD’s 20 school districts, including a strong impact on test scores.
The Kids Count report puts a magnifying glass on some of those factors in 82 of Michigan’s 83 counties (Keweenaw lacked enough data), including Kent County’s approximately 158,000 children ages 0-17. It shows Kent ranking 26th highest for overall child well-being but 30th in child poverty.
Abuse and Neglect Cases Rise Sharply
Most glaring is Kent’s 40 percent increase in children living in poverty, defined as $23,600 or less for a two-parent family of four. At 23 percent, Kent’s child poverty rate is less than the statewide figure of 24.7 but grew at a faster rate over the past six years.
By contrast, Lake County had the state’s highest child poverty rate at 52.2 percent, while neighboring Ottawa County had the third-lowest at 12.7 percent. However, Ottawa’s rate shot up 69 percent over six years.
In an especially startling finding, the report shows a sharp increase in children whose families were investigated for abuse and neglect, and in the number of confirmed victims. Statewide, investigations increased by 41 percent between 2006 and 2013, and by a whopping 87 percent in Kent County. Confirmed victims in Kent were up by 49 percent.
Part of the increase is due to a centralized toll-free number for reporting allegations adopted in 2012, said project director Zehnder-Merrell. But neglect is the most common driver of the numbers and is closely aligned with poverty, she said, adding prevention services have been cut as well.
The abuse and neglect numbers make an unfortunate kind of sense given the stress among impoverished families, added Heemstra of Our Community’s Children: “When parents are stretched to the limit, you often have situations where children take the brunt of it.”
Helping Students In and After School
Heemstra noted some encouraging trends in the report, such as a 23 percent county decline in teen births. “Kids are getting smarter that that’s not necessarily a cool thing to do, and it’s expensive,” she added.
Providing after-school opportunities for students has been a key focus of Our Community’s Children, a partnership between the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools. Its ELO Network includes more than 60 organizations serving 21,000 children with activities and learning programs, at a time of day when they are vulnerable to drugs, sex and violence.
“We’re doing all we can so children can see the possibilities that lie ahead of them, can see the careers that exist and can see themselves in a place that’s different than what they grow up in,” Heemstra said.
“It takes a lot of work and it takes all of us. But there’s hope.”
– Lynn Heemstra, Our Community’s Children
However, students are still up against “appalling” economic and racial disparities, realities that call for policy changes and community commitment to lift them out of poverty, she added. The Mayor’s 100 campaign, for instance, partners the city with businesses to provide jobs for youth.
Meanwhile, the Kent School Services Network provides counselors, case managers and health workers in 29 schools. Since its founding in 2006, more schools have joined to help meet growing student needs, said Paine-McGovern, the director.
“As we’ve seen some positive outcomes for the work we are doing, more and more schools are seeing more and more students and families in poverty,” she said.
Her organization focuses on areas such as improving student attendance, reducing hunger and helping parents gain literacy. Paine-McGovern saw the countywide improvement in fourth-grade reading test scores as a sign KSSN is helping.
“Hopefully our work in getting children to be in school every day on time is helping them to learn, to succeed and graduate,” she said.
Despite Kids Count’s discouraging findings, the problems are not insurmountable, she and Heemstra agree.
“It takes a lot of work and it takes all of us,” Heemstra said. “But there’s hope. There’s hope we can do it, and we have to prioritize it.”