Child poverty, abuse on the rise in Great Lakes Bay Region

By Andrew Dodson

Bay City Times

February 10, 2011

More than 21 percent of children in the Great Lakes Bay Region live in poverty.

That’s according to the latest Kids Count in Michigan Data Book.  

The information was released Tuesday and examines county-level trends in a child’s well-being. It scopes into child poverty rates, child health, child abuse and neglect and education statistics. Data are from 2009 and are compared with data from as early as 1998. 

“Obviously, the economy is a big problem, jobs are a big factor in these families being able to be self-sufficient,” said Brian Bonotto, community impact director at the United Way of Midland County. 

Midland County experienced a decrease in child poverty from 2005 to 2008, while Bay and Saginaw county numbers increased.  

That has child advocacy leaders concerned. 

“We know that economic insecurity really has a profound impact on outcomes for kids across the board,” said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, a senior research associate for the Lansing-based Michigan League for Human Services — the organization that commissioned Michigan’s Kids Count. “We have children now that have lived through a long economic downturn, and we’re particularly concerned about the long-term impacts of this recession on children. It just elevates the risk of dropping out, of not doing well in school.” 

Confirmed child abuse cases also are up in Bay, Midland and Saginaw counties, but so are investigations.  

Julie Kozan, director for Great Start Collaborative Saginaw, said numbers may not appear as bad as they are because of more investigations. 

“It’s a good thing that more cases are being investigated; when you investigate more cases, you find more instances of abuse and neglect,” Kozan said. “We are doing a better job (of investigating).” 

Students receiving free or reduced lunch in schools increased drastically across the region, according to the report. 

More than 54 percent of Saginaw County students receive free or reduced lunch, with 46 percent in Bay County and 30 percent in Midland County. 

Barbara Arndt, executive director of the Midland-based School Nutrition Association of Michigan, said the state’s recent breakfast challenge has increased those numbers of students receiving free or reduced meals. 

“Our goal is to advance good nutrition of Michigan’s children,” said Arndt. “A lot of our children come to school without breakfast ... in return, they are more focused, they are learning better.” 

Jack Kresnak, president of Lansing-based Michigan’s Children, a nonprofit organization that speaks out for the well-being of children and their families, said teachers and schools have a more difficult time educating students with health issues, who are hungry and do not have the benefit of socialization. 

The state needs a cohesive program to help child and teen development, he said, and Michigan is only one of 12 states that lack such a concept. 

“We need to think about educating regarding health, parent ability to support them and well-being,” he said.