You can learn that the Detroit Tigers can’t make the playoffs, that the Lions are still horrible, and that the Pistons are expected to be bad. But you‘ll have a harder time finding this far more significant and devastating piece of news: The number of children in poverty in Michigan skyrocketed last year, from 19 percent to 22 percent.
That rate was higher still for very young children and for children in single parent homes. In fact, a majority of Michigan single mothers themselves slipped below the federal poverty level.
What is so terrible about this is that, unlike in the movies, poverty is rarely a temporary thing. According to the Michigan League for Human Services, “Kids who are born in poverty tend to stay in poverty. New research shows that one-half of children born in poverty will spend at least half their childhood,” deeply poor.
Jane Zehnder-Merrill, a senior associate at the non-profit organization, added: “This does not bode well for the coming years.”
No kidding. It’s well known that what happens to children in the first five years is vitally important to their success in school and later in life. Last year there were 160,000 babies in Michigan under that age of five, living in deep poverty. That’s scary and a scandal.
The reasons for this are not hard to find. Michigan hasn’t been in a recession, like the rest of the nation. It has been in a one-state depression. Those aren’t my words; they are the words of Dana Johnson, the chief economist for Comerica Bank, which used to be here before it moved its headquarters to Texas.
Yesterday the U.S. Census Bureau provided ample confirmation of that. They released data from a survey conducted last year. The figures were devastating. Michigan median household income fell by more than twenty-one percent over the last decade. Nearly a third of that came in the year ending in 2009.
That was three times as bad as the national average, and far worse than any other state. In Metropolitan Detroit, the situation was even worse. Household income fell by a third in the city itself. Things weren‘t much better in the suburbs, especially manufacturing-heavy Macomb County. What happened, demographer Kurt Metzger told me, is that the bubble has burst.
For years, Michigan was the place for high-paying low-skilled or unskilled labor, thanks to the auto industry. That’s over now.
If we have any hope for a better future, it is in our children, and a better-educated workforce. That’s why these child poverty statistics are so frightening. And that’s why it is hard to understand when our lawmakers cut aid to education, and aid to poor children.
They‘d rather do that, it seems, than ask those of us who are relatively affluent to pay more. Right now, the budget is stalled because the Republicans in the senate don’t want to fund workers who provide child care to low-income families receiving state aid. Sharon Parks, who heads the Michigan League for Human Services, noted yesterday that “the situation will only get worse without a strong effort to meet the needs of struggling families.”
Evidently that’s an effort we’re just not willing to make.