Group takes first step in establishing local poverty reduction initiative

With thousands of people living in poverty in Mecosta and Osceola counties, addressing how best to help families recover is a daunting task.

With that in mind, a group of 33 people from several human service groups, businesses and other entities gathered on Friday at the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District in Big Rapids. The group took the first step toward establishing a local poverty reduction initiative, which, if pursued, will examine common causes of poverty and look at solutions from a collaborative, bottom-to-top approach.

“We’ve had the pep rally,” said Larry Emig, of the Human Services Collaborative Body and Strong Families/Safe Children initiative, referring to Friday’s meeting. “Now we got to go over the game plan.”

Representatives from a variety of local groups, from God’s Helping Hands of Remus to the Mecosta-Osceola Department of Human Services to Chemical Bank, were present at the meeting.

Discussion largely sprung from a presentation by Jeff Brown, a consultant to the Voices for Action network serving 11 counties, including Mecosta, Osceola, Lake, Newaygo, Montcalm and Oceana counties. The Voices for Action coalition is aimed at connecting different reduction activities to cut down on poverty.

The group also concurred that it wants to include the input of people living in poverty. Pairing data and facts with personal stories can help end stereotypes, Brown said.

“The people who are poverty experts are the people who live in poverty,” he said. “We have to realize we can only view this issue from wherever we come from.”

Brown also advised that local businesses and public officials be brought into the mix.

“I’m a firm believer that the best ideas are local ideas,” Brown said. “Poverty reduction strategy is actually economic development. ... People in poverty make economic development more challenging for a community. People who are working, contributing to the community as a whole, make economic development more successful.”

In Mecosta County, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the percentage of people living at or below the poverty line has increased from 16.1 percent in 1999 to around 20 percent in 2009.

In Osceola County, the percentage jumped from 12.7 percent to 18.3 percent during the same 10-year period.

In other Michigan counties, similar poverty reduction initiatives are getting off the ground as well, notably in the Traverse Bay area and Kalamazoo.

Data indicates that people with no more than a high school education have a higher tendency to live in poverty, as do single-parent households. They primarily lack the resources and understanding to get out of poverty, Brown said.

“One of the first things I’ll always ask people is to just open your mind a little bit and accept the fact that the people who live in poverty don’t want to live in poverty,” he said. “It’s not a pleasant place to be. Could they have made better choices along the way and different things? Yeah, probably. But did they choose to be in poverty? Is it good to not have what you need in order to get by?”

Looking forward, the group has a meeting scheduled for next month.

Great Start Collaborative coordinator LouAnn Gregory, who was among those in attendance, said she would like to see those who attended Friday’s meeting continue their involvement in the future.

“It was a great turnout with so many sectors of the community represented,” she added. “It’s a multifaceted issue, and we’re going to need the help of every community sector that we can get to join in.”