Despite overall wealth, experts say poverty is rampant in Oakland County

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 28, 2019

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BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — “I don’t care how big someone’s house is. You just never know what their situation might be,” said Gilda Jacobs, the president and CEO of the Michigan League of Public Policy.

She and Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan Strategic Impact Director Rachel Williams shared with guests some surprising statistics about the prevalence of poverty in Oakland County.

The League of Women Voters Oakland Area hosted the speakers during a special forum Oct. 24 at the Bloomfield Township Public Library. Despite being the wealthiest county in Michigan and one of the most affluent counties in the nation, it’s estimated that as many as 38% of residents struggle to meet their basic needs and 14% are living in true poverty.

“People don’t really talk about it. They say low-income people are in Detroit, they’re in Muskegon, they’re in Flint. They don’t realize they are your neighbor next door,” Jacobs said.

She went on to say that part of the problem is, in the state’s richest county, the cost of living is priced accordingly. The cost of child care, for instance, is 35% higher than the state average, at around $764 per month. For a single parent working a full-time job at minimum wage, that’s just about half their paycheck.

Along with financial trouble, many Michigan families face food insecurity. Half of students in Michigan are receiving free or reduced lunches through federal programming, but that only covers a portion of their nutritional needs, Williams said.

“There are 135,000 food-insecure people in Oakland County,” she said, citing a Feeding America statistic. “And of that 135,000 people, 46% of them are not eligible for (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Imagine having a need but you have too much money to qualify for help to meet that need.”

The problem, she said, is that the state’s minimum wage still isn’t enough to meet even minimal expenses. A mother of two children in Oakland County earning $8.90 per hour would need to work 110 hours per week to make ends meet.

Children aren’t the only ones impacted, either. Williams estimates that the average amount of money a senior in southeast Michigan receives in food assistance benefits is $15.

“That’s the figure we hear the most from seniors that come to our pop-up grocery stores,” she said.

There are bandages for the problem, she added, noting websites like pantrynet.org, where food-insecure families can go to find help. Gleaners alone distributed 43 million pounds of food across southeast Michigan last year.

But lasting change needs to happen in a systematic way, the experts agreed. People concerned about poverty in their community should speak with legislators and local representatives and encourage policies that allow for higher wages and easier access to assistance.

In the meantime, individuals can do their part by spreading the word about resources available nearby to help those in need. Directing families to churches with food pantries, places that serve students lunches during the summer with the Meet Up and Eat Up program, and organizations that can make connections with nonprofit and government assistance resources can be a big help.

Jacobs said that struggling residents can call 211 for help meeting basic needs.

Often, the barrier between families and the assistance they need to get on their feet is as simple as a lack of knowledge about where to go for help.

That, and stigma.

“The good news is that there is a lot of help out there. But you have to figure it out yourself. So many people don’t know where to go,” Williams said. “If we say, ‘Hey, there’s this place you can go over here. You should check it out,’ then we can spread the word and make a bigger impact.”

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