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Poverty For Kids Grows In Area

February 1, 2013

Livingston Daily - Despite Livingston County's relative affluence, child poverty and students on free lunches in the community increased more than the state average from 2005 to 2011, according to a new lobbyist report.

The Kids Count in Michigan Data Book 2012 found that continued high unemployment and lower household income have increasingly contributed to child poverty and students needing the free or reduced-price lunch program across the state.

The majority of the report's time frame — 2005 to 2009 — covers the national recession, and the U.S. economy, by many standards, has slightly improved since that time.

Those who stopped looking for work are not counted as unemployed, which would make the unemployment rate higher if counted, noted the Michigan League for Public Policy, which produced the report.

"We would like to have a happy report. Unfortunately, that's not what's happening, particularly in the area of economic security, which is the bedrock of well-being for kids," said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count in Michigan director.

"There's not really a county that's not been touched by this," Zehnder-Merrell added.

The report found that the Livingston County's child poverty rate increased 53 percent. Students getting free or reduced lunches increased 84 percent from 2005 to 2011.

In the same time frame, the statewide child poverty rate increased 28 percent and students qualifying for free or reduced lunch increased 55 percent, according to the data.

Still, Livingston ranked second-highest among 82 of Michigan's 83 counties in the report's total 15 indicators of child well-being. Keweenaw County in the Upper Peninsula was excluded from the report because there wasn't sufficient data from the small-population county.

Livingston's child-wellness assessment was bested only by Ottawa County in western Michigan.

Despite those increases, child poverty in Livingston and other top-ranked counties paled in comparison to bottom-ranked counties such as Roscommon County in northern Michigan and Lake County in western Michigan, Zehnder-Merrell said.

While the economic indicators jumped significantly in the county over the six-year period, 23 percent of Livingston County students received free or reduced-cost lunches, compared to 48 percent of all Michigan students.

Zehnder-Merrell said Livingston's increases are higher because the county had low levels of child poverty and children on free or reduced lunch prior to 2005.

Several Livingston County agencies were briefed on the report, and some plan to use the data. The Livingston Educational Service Agency's Head Start and Great Start Readiness programs plan to use the data in seeking grants.

The report accurately reflects the relationship between economics and child-wellness in Livingston County, said Candice Davies, director of the two early-childhood needs and education programs.

Davies said the data will help county agencies focus more closely on needs of county children.

"Livingston County might be more affluent than others, but those problems exist here," she said.

"I think, as a county, that is a lot of what the Great Start Collaborative is there for, and to use this data so that people are aware that we do have these problems in Livingston County as well and to use it to bring it to the forefront so that people are investing in the prevention in early-childhood care and education so that the kids end up at school ready to succeed," she added.

The Kids Count report data is intended to encourage the GOP-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to rethink their positions on several polices, including a reduction in the state portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and new limitations on state welfare payments, Zehnder-Merrell said.

She said those changes, among others, have worsened child wellness by hitting parents' pocketbooks.

In other words, the less income coming in, the worse off the child, she added.

"Our agency believes our government has a role to play. We all pay taxes into the system, and part of what we think is a priority is spending some of that money" on child welfare, she said.

The tax credit to help low-income families was reduced among several tax changes, including ending an exemption on some pension income. Republicans have said welfare limitations were needed to encourage Michiganders to return to work and not rely on state entitlements.

The biggest statewide improvements in the Kids Count report were a decline of children in foster care and fewer fourth-grade students ranked "not proficient" in reading in the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test, or MEAP. There also were modest decreases statewide in infant-mortality and deaths of those ages 1 to 19.

By Christopher Behnan