One in four area children live in poverty

MECOSTA COUNTY — The number of children living in poverty in Mecosta County has risen by about 41 percent since 2005, according to the 2013 Kids Count in Michigan report produced by the Michigan League for Public Policy.

There were 36.1 percent of children living in poverty in Mecosta County in 2011, a jump of 41 percent since 2005. Statewide, the child poverty rate increased 34 percent in that time period. Of the county's total population, 25.6 percent lived in poverty.

Nearly 560,000 children — about one in every four in Michigan — lived in poverty in 2011.

Twenty-five percent of Mecosta County residents receive some form of government assistance, with the median household income estimated to be $38,634. The report also shows the county's unemployment rates peaking in 2009 and 2010 at 12.5 and 12.2 percent, respectively. In 2012, unemployment was reported at 9.3 percent in the county and at 8.6 percent statewide.

Mecosta County ranked No. 49 of 83 counties (No. 1 has the best, or lowest, rate) with 37.9 percent of young children, ages 0-5, eligible for food assistance, compared with 37 percent statewide. The report also shows that 61.8 percent of Mecosta County children receive free or reduced-price school lunches.

Those statistics are reflected in the need for food bags from Angels of Action, said executive director Joni Thompson.

Angels of Action sends food-filled backpacks home with Mecosta County students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Each October, the group locks in the number of bags needed at each school based on data collected by faculty. This year, Angels of Action anticipated that more than 60 percent of students would receive free and reduced lunch and therefore would need weekend backpacks, but three schools have already asked for more backpacks than they anticipated needing, Thompson said.

"When you break it down, out of that 60 percent, the majority of those kids are on free lunch," Thompson said. "We're hearing more stories now about kids in need in our county. One teacher told us a girl in her class hides her food bag and eats the cereal in her closet. More of them are depending on our food bag now, and I don't see that need going down. It's getting worse each year.

"There are a lot of struggling families," Thompson continued. "There's a misconception that these people are lazy, but that's not true. We have a lot of single moms or families with two parents both working and they still struggle to make ends meet. People need to open their eyes to poverty because they don't understand what's going on in our area."

The Kids Count report also found a big increase – 41 percent – statewide in the number of children living in families investigated for abuse and neglect between 2005 and 2012. A total of nearly 207,000 children – the highest number in 22 years – were living in investigated families in 2012 statewide.

Mecosta County ranked No. 61 with 133.2 children per 1,000 living in homes investigated for abuse or neglect compared with the statewide average of 90 children per 1,000.

The report wasn't all bad, though – MLPP found statewide fourth-grade reading scores improved 20 percent, while eighth-grade math scores improved slightly at 1 percent between 2008 and 2012. Mecosta County saw a 27 percent improvement in fourth-grade reading, but a 6 percent worsening in eighth-grade math.

To read the entire report, visit mlpp.org/kids-count.