CADILLAC — Michiganders are making more money, but poverty continues to mark the state's communities. Especially Lake County.
The University of Michigan's Poverty Solutions Initiative recently released its second annual map highlighting poverty and well-being measures throughout Michigan.
“We think the map is important because often Michiganders think poverty is only an urban issue,‘ Luke Shaefer, director of the initiative, told the Cadillac News. The 2018 map clearly illustrates that poverty strikes rural areas as well as heavily populated ones.
The map was released just as a new effort to bring economic development to Lake County got underway.
The county recently partnered with The Right Place, Inc. to hire a business development coordinator who will work under the leadership of the Lake County Economic Development Alliance.
Jodi Nichols, the person hired for the job, got started in the role just before the holidays, she said.
While Lake County benefits from the wildlife, lakes and rivers, the county also suffers because abundant state and federal land mean there is less of a tax base, explained Barb Stenger, president of the Alliance.
Data provided by the Poverty Solutions Initiative's newly released map shows how widespread poverty is in Lake County. The data was drawn from publically available sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey and the United Way's "ALICE" (Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed).
LAKE COUNTY BY THE NUMBERS
By most measures, people in Lake County struggle economically.
They make less money than in any other Michigan county.
The median household income in Lake County is $35,005 while the statewide median is $49,656. Michiganders' income grew $2,832 compared to the numbers published in 2017's poverty map, but Lake County residents' income gain was about half that, at $1,297.
(In comparison, Wexford County residents had a median income in 2018 of $46,072. In Missaukee County it was $44,553 and in Osceola County it was $41,268).
Adult poverty is the fourth highest in the state, at 22.1 percent. But even more kids in the county, nearly 40 percent, live in poverty (across the region, the kids-in-poverty rate is lower, at 22.9 percent in Northern Michigan).
THE EFFORT TO BUILD
The Poverty Solutions Initiative hopes communities will use the map to understand their strengths and challenges, Shaefer said. And the Poverty Solutions Team has already met with Lake County stakeholders to talk about practical solutions to poverty.
"Some familiar themes emerged, such as access to transportation, quality child care, health care, and affordable housing — challenges that plague lower-income individuals in urban, rural, and suburban areas alike," the Poverty Solutions Initiative wrote in a news release in June of 2018.
One of the main questions at the session was "How can we start that conversation?" said Shawn Washington, executive director of Lake County Habitat for Humanity. "Who would need to be at the table?"
Barb Stenger, president of the Lake County Economic Development Alliance, was not at the meeting with the University of Michigan's Poverty Solutions Initiative in 2018.
But she points to the partnership with The Right Place, Inc and the hiring of Business Development Coordinator Jodi Nichols as major steps in the right direction.
"The Alliance is working very hard in Lake County and we are looking forward to a very bright future," Stenger said.
Nichols is starting by talking to existing businesses.
“We are focusing first on retaining and growing the businesses that are already committed to Lake County,‘ Nichols said.
The next step will be building infrastructure, she said.
Broadband is critical, according to Stenger.
"It's practically our No. 1 priority," she said.
Many people would like to live here and work in Lake County, but they need high-speed internet to do their jobs. And tourists need good internet as well, she said.
In Lake County, economic development and environmental protection go hand-in-hand, according to Stenger.
It's the environment, after all, that brings people to Lake County, Stenger said.
"We want people to come," she said. But the county needs to protect its natural resources "so that we can always preserve the environment we already have and are thankful for."