CADILLAC — Sobering statistics reveal the level of economic distress that many people live under in Northern Michigan — distress that researchers say could become critical in coming months if relief efforts aren’t undertaken.
According to the Michigan Poverty and Well-Being Map recently released by the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative, even before the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic began, about 14% of Michiganders were living in poverty and another 29% of households were struggling to make ends meet.
Here in Northern Michigan, the situation was even more grim: the percent of people living below the poverty line in Wexford, Missaukee, Osceola and Lake counties was 16.4% and households struggling to get by comprised 34.2% of the population, on average. That means more than half of the population in this area was on uncertain financial footing.
Taking into account people living in poverty as well as working-poor households — also known as Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed (ALICE) — provides a sense of how many Michiganders are struggling financially, said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions. ALICE is a metric developed by United Way that counts the number of households in each county, as well as statewide, whose income puts them above the federal poverty line, and yet they still cannot afford a basic household budget.
“Even before the pandemic spread to Michigan, there were many people struggling, and that shows up in a number of different ways on the Poverty and Well-Being Map,‘ said H. Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions and the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy.
“Understanding this is critically important as we think about how federal, state and local relief efforts are rolled out. We need to make sure we are not letting residents who were already struggling slip through the cracks.‘
Lake County’s combined poverty and ALICE score was the highest among area counties — at 60.9% (which includes the state’s second highest poverty level, at 22.3%), followed by Osceola County at 51.1%, Missaukee County at 48.7% and Wexford County at 47.9%.
Economic uncertainty wasn’t the only metric where Northern Michigan performed worse than the statewide average.
Statewide, 7.6% of kids were homeless by fifth grade, compared to 18% of kids in this part of Northern Michigan. Lake County had the highest percentage of kids in this area who were homeless by fifth grade — a staggering 25.5%, which was the second highest in the state, surpassed only by Oceana County.
Erb-Downward said the homeless numbers are very troubling, particularly in Northern Michigan, which doesn’t seem to get as much attention as urban areas when it comes to the impact that poverty has on the population.
“It’s an indicator that crystallizes the struggle that exists in the state at a fundamental level,‘ Erb-Downward said. “Everyone needs a place to call home. Losing housing is a disaster for people in so many different ways, especially in the context of a pandemic.‘
Residential uncertainty is tied to a host of other problems, Erb-Downward said, including chronic absenteeism and poor performance in school, trouble holding down a job, long-term health ramifications, and more.
“We have people whose bills are piling up if they’ve lost income during this public health emergency,‘ Erb-Downward said. “Given how many people were experiencing housing instability before this, we need to be proactive in thinking about how we can prevent a large number of evictions as soon as this crisis is over and emergency protections like the temporary statewide eviction moratorium end.‘
Erb-Downward said historical data from times of economic downturns show big spikes in eviction notice filings in Michigan (at higher rates than most other states), and there’s no reason to think this period will be any different once the state lifts the moratorium on evictions put in place when the Stay Home, Stay Safe order was issued.
“The ... moratorium (on evictions) was huge,‘ Erb-Downward said. “If that wasn’t in place, we’d already be seeing a lot of people losing their homes.‘
Researchers have recommended the state take actions to protect people who may be at risk for homelessness once the moratorium is lifted. Those actions include the following: guaranteeing right to legal counsel for tenants in eviction cases; increasing funding for affordable housing operations and emergency rental assistance, and making it easier for tenants to receive emergency rental assistance; and passing legislation that would reduce the amount of late fees landlords can charge tenants and reducing fees that courts add on to eviction cases.
Erb-Downward said the exact toll that COVID-19 could have on the area’s economic stability is hard to say at this point. The only thing they’re fairly certain about is that it will have an impact.
“There is a perception that poverty is an urban issue,‘ Erb-Downward said. “It’s not. There’s a much higher level of poverty in Northern Michigan than people generally talk about. It’s a continuing and persistent problem, and something as a state we need to deal with.‘
Poverty Solutions has updated the Michigan Poverty and Well-Being Map annually since 2017 and compiled more than 50 publicly available indicators in addition to the indicators displayed on the map.
To check out the map and raw data, go to https://poverty.umich.edu/data-tools-poverty-and-well-being-map-2020/.
Percent of people who are struggling in area counties:
• Wexford County — 13.1% below poverty; 31.6% ALICE
• Missaukee County — 12.9% below poverty; 34.2% ALICE
• Osceola County — 17.6% below poverty; 32.9 ALICE
• Lake County — 22.3% below poverty; 38.3% ALICE
Percent of kids who experience homelessness by fifth grade:
• Wexford County — 13.2%
• Missaukee County — 16.5%
• Osceola County — 17%
• Lake County — 25.5%