Poverty rates in Grand Rapids are still double those of the state as a whole, although trends are improving

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Jaylynne Moterroso, 17, often sees the emotional impact that poverty and homelessness have on children.

As a senior at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy, she sees homeless people living in the park next to her school all the time. She knows classmates whose families live in poverty. She remembers her own family who have struggled financially in the past.

That’s a lot for a teenager.

“It can be overwhelming because there aren’t a lot of places where we can express our opinions on these issues,” Calderon told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press.

Calderon isn’t the only one dealing with such issues. In Grand Rapids, one-third of children under the age of 17 live in poverty, according to new data from the Michigan League of Public Policy. That’s twice as much as in the rest of the state of Michigan.

Those numbers worry Kelsey Perdue, director of the league’s Kids Count program, which just released its annual report on the current well-being of Michigan children.

“We know we’re in a housing crisis, it’s a big topic of conversation here across the state and in our region,” Perdue said at a news conference Thursday, July 28. “We know that affordable, safe and stable housing is key to the well-being of children and families. It affects education, it affects your connection to the community, it affects a family’s ability to make ends meet.”

Data released Thursday shows that in Grand Rapids, 30% of families are burdened by high housing costs and 20% of children live in areas considered to be very poor.

“That means they risk having unfair access to strong schools, quality jobs and robust medical facilities,” Perdue said.

The good news is that child poverty rates are declining in Grand Rapids. While 33% of children under the age of 17 in Grand Rapids currently live in poverty, that number has fallen from 44% in 2010.

TIED TOGETHER: Study shows child poverty is on the decline in Grand Rapids

The same trend is evident nationwide. In Michigan, child poverty rates fell nearly 28% between 2010 and 2020, according to the 2022 Kids Count report. Eighty-two of Michigan’s 83 counties saw a decrease in child poverty rates.

But there’s still work to be done to help families make ends meet, said Lynne Ferrell, director of programs for the Frey Foundation, a local nonprofit that invests in community efforts to support children and families, among other things.

“We talk about it in 10-year increments, but think about it in a child’s life,” Ferrell said Thursday. “We’re not moving fast enough. This is important work, but we really need to speed up our work.”

TIED TOGETHER: Since 2010, child poverty has decreased in 82 of Michigan’s 83 counties

To address Michigan’s child poverty rates, the league is urging federal and state policymakers to expand investments resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as child tax credits and Michigan’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

Perdue said these investments have helped bring down poverty rates in Michigan at a faster rate over the past two years by putting more money in the pockets of parents who need to support their children.

“We know if we want kids to be healthy, we need to support their parents and families, and this is a really important way for us to do that,” she said.

The league also advocates for the state to increase payments to childcare providers to reflect the true cost of care and improve quality, availability and access for families.

Aarie Wade, director of education at the Baxter Community Center, said investing in childcare will have a direct impact on children in Grand Rapids, as childcare workers often struggle to make ends meet, which can force them to leave the field. Data has shown that one in five childcare workers live in poverty, Wade said Thursday.

“In real life, it seems like early childhood directors carry on working after work,” Wade said. “Teachers who work two or three jobs and do things for extra money. Babysitting for families. In practice, turnover rates also look to be in excess of 25% as highly skilled early childhood educators are lost to factories, fast food and nursing homes.”

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