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Surviving But Not Thriving

Poverty is Kalamazoo's Hidden Problem

“When you say, ‘Who are the poor?’ The poor are all of us.”

So says Dr. Tim Ready, director of the Lewis Walker Institute at Western Michigan University. He has focused his work on understanding poverty in Kalamazoo and throughout the United States.

Ready has studied minority populations throughout the U.S. for the last three decades and says poverty is something that can affect nearly everyone. Some people grow up in poor families and have little chance to improve their situation. Others fall into poverty because of their choices, such as substance abuse, or their circumstances, such as a serious injury, he says.

While some may equate poverty with a person holding a cardboard sign on a street corner or those who make weekly visits to a food pantry, in most cases it isn’t that obvious. It can just be struggling each day to keep the heat on, Ready says.
“There are a lot of people in this country who are economically insecure,” he says.

By the numbers

To the federal and state governments, poverty involves a monetary line — specifically, the poverty threshold, an income level calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau each year that takes into account a household’s number of family members, their ages and the cost of living averaged across the nation. If your household income is below the threshold, you are in poverty.

In 2017, that threshold is $24,600 for a family of four with two children under age 18, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Ready estimates that 16 percent of Kalamazoo County’s population was in poverty in 2015. In the city of Kalamazoo, the estimate was 32 percent.

However, a 2017 report by the Michigan Association of United Ways (the parent organization of the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region) puts those percentages higher. The organization found that 36 percent of Kalamazoo County residents and 59 percent of Kalamazoo residents were in poverty. The organization’s “ALICE Study of Financial Hardship” used its own measure of poverty — called Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) — and included families with adults who have jobs but are not bringing in enough income to pay for basic needs like health care, housing, transportation, food and child care.

Using the ALICE numbers, a family of four in Kalamazoo County requires a “household survival budget” (what’s needed to meet those basic needs) of about $57,000 a year. The ALICE report estimates more than one-third of families in Southwest Michigan, which includes Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties, are under financial hardship.

A quarter of the “household survival” expenses for a family of four goes to child care, almost double the cost of maintaining a car or paying rent or a mortgage.

“Lots of poor people are working, but it’s not enough, especially if you have a couple of kids,” says Nancy Lindman, interim CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways. “We all know Alice; she is taking care of your kids. Alice is the person who gave you a coffee this morning before you went to work.”

Art Cole, service director of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, says about 40 percent of the annual visitors to his organization’s food pantries are under the age of 18, often visiting with their parents. In 2010, the average visitor made three to four stops at Loaves & Fishes. In 2015, that number increased to more than five, Cole says.

“There’s a growing edge of people who never thought they would have to turn to a place like Loaves & Fishes,” Cole says. “People say, ‘I’ve been staring at the phone for two hours and finally called.’”

Ready says many people are in “transient poverty” — they’ve slipped below the threshold because one income earner has lost a job, or the cost of medical care has left them in deep debt. With time, and another source of income, they can move out of poverty.

Michelle Davis, executive director of Housing Resources Inc., a Kalamazoo organization that matches low-income families with apartments and, ideally, homes, says about 60 percent of the families that reach out to HRI have at least one adult household member who is employed. HRI’s clients earn money, but it just isn’t enough to pay for housing.

Davis says HRI representatives will often give presentations at large employers in the region about HRI and volunteering, only to have those companies’ employees approach her and her staff to ask for help with their own situations.

“We give speeches to some of the big businesses (in Kalamazoo),” she says. “The CEOs have no idea that after the talk their employees come to us for housing. It all comes down to wages. With jobs in the $10-to-$15-an-hour range, that isn’t enough.”

Jobs, not money

Ready and city leaders are members of Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo, a group organized by the city of Kalamazoo to develop ways to combat poverty in the community. Shared Prosperity was created in 2015 after an earlier county program, the Poverty Reduction Initiative, was dissolved because of a lack of funds from government and private organizations.

Shared Prosperity meets weekly to talk about the city’s efforts to reduce poverty rates. The group is just getting started, with only a few small programs to its credit so far. Its partners include Housing Resources Inc.; Urban Alliance, a Kalamazoo-based nonprofit organization focused on preparing people to find jobs and homes; and Kalamazoo County’s Community Action Agency, which helps with utility bills and tax filing, among other tasks.

Earlier this spring, Shared Prosperity announced that part of the Foundation for Excellence — an anticipated $70 million contributed by local philanthropists and others — is expected to be used to create jobs, rejuvenate Kalamazoo’s infrastructure and support small business growth.

Shared Prosperity members had asked Kalamazoo residents living in poverty about what assistance they wanted from their government. Ready says several groups of people told them the same thing: Even though they are in poverty, they don’t want money thrown at them.

“They don’t want money. They want jobs,” he says, “but that requires training. That requires that basic needs are met.”

Gaining momentum

A job is just one of the things Devin McDonald, 30, of Kalamazoo, was looking for. After serving a prison term for drug-related crimes, he found a job at a restaurant, but then lost it because court appearances related to child support payments cut into his work hours. McDonald ended up at Momentum, a six-week career training program by Urban Alliance and Kalamazoo Valley Community College that is funded by private donors and grants from local groups like the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.

McDonald learned technical skills like blueprint analysis and computer use in industry, but even more important for him, he says, was the emotional support he received from the teachers and his classmates.

“As long as you change your thought process, you can succeed,” he says. “I was used to self-sabotage. I thought I wasn’t worthy (of a job).”

Luke Kujacznski, executive director of Urban Alliance, calls that mindset “emotional poverty.”

“A lot of people have a complete lack of hope or a belief that they have anything to contribute to society,” Kujacznski says. “(People in poverty) are fantastic at surviving, but they feel they’ve lost the chance at thriving.”

Kujacznski says participants in the Momentum program often come from referrals, with officials in the Kalamazoo County Drug Treatment Court suggesting candidates likely to succeed at Momentum. Other government agencies, such as the Kalamazoo County Office of Community Corrections (which supports alternatives to prison), and probation officers also recommend participants for the Momentum program. Kujacznski says the majority of referrals to the program come from past graduates who recommend friends or family members.

Since the training program was started in 2013, Momentum has seen an 80 percent graduation rate. Ninety percent of those graduates find a job after leaving the program and stay employed 90 days or longer, says Kujacznski.
“If (Momentum) provides someone who is eager for that chance at employment, they stick it out (at the job),” he says.

The program is growing quickly, with about 140 graduates anticipated in 2017, twice the number of graduates in 2016. Momentum has two locations, one on Stockbridge Avenue and the other on the city’s east side or north side, depending on where the participants in that session live.

The program has partnerships with about 50 Kalamazoo County businesses — mostly in manufacturing, hospitality or food service — that hire graduates after a series of interviews, like any other job applicants. Kujacznski says when Momentum was starting, it was difficult to find businesses willing to hire ex-convicts, but it has become much easier as the program has proven itself effective.

“Our retention rates are so much better than hiring people off the street,” he says.

Coordination needed

Short-term poverty can be attributed to job loss or other (usually) temporary situations, but drug abuse and related criminal records are often behind long-term poverty. A study by the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California found that while 56 percent of people living below the Census Bureau’s poverty line were able to move out of poverty within a year, 36 percent of those return to poverty within four years. The average length for a person living below the poverty line was almost three years.

Kalamazoo Vice Mayor Don Cooney says the city’s Shared Prosperity group is attempting to coordinate various area nonprofits to better reach people in need.

“We’ve got the Kalamazoo Promise and all these social services,” Cooney says. “The city can be the catalyst, bringing groups together. Many times nonprofits are competing for the same (grants).”

Davis agrees, saying coordination is needed to streamline the process of getting people into a home, helping them learn job skills and more. Because each nonprofit has its own record-keeping and computer systems, clients have to produce the same documentation and sign the same paperwork at each organization they seek help from. It’s time-consuming and redundant, Davis says, but she notes she’s seen more coordination among organizations in Kalamazoo than in other places around the U.S.

Another issue facing people in poverty is gentrification, a process by which investors buy homes in areas usually available to people with little income, fix them up and rent them out to those who can afford higher rental costs. These new homeowners and renters then criticize the neighborhood for not meeting their higher standards.

“They say, ‘These people shouldn’t live there,’ about people who have been there their whole lives,” Davis says.

Possibly the most important need is awareness, those living in poverty say. Christie Armentrout, 28, of Kalamazoo, says she spent a lot of time staying with friends and family after a difficult childhood. She started drinking alcohol at the age of 12 and dropped out of school in 10th grade. Encounters with the police led her to Urban Alliance. She graduated from the Momentum program in 2016 and says she’s interested in studying recreational therapy, a type of treatment for people recovering from serious illness or disability.

“There weren’t a lot of people willing to help me, so I thought it was OK to live that way,” Armentrout says. “It (the Momentum program) was like coming out of the mud.”

Kujacznski says many people that Urban Alliance targets have not been given an opportunity to get out of poverty.

“If society only sees you as a drug abuser or a felon, where do you see your value?” he asks. “If we really cared, we’d want to learn more. Instead, we push (poor people) to the fringe and wonder why they can’t do more.”

Cole says many people coming to Loaves & Fishes are referred there by other organizations, where staff can recognize when people aren’t getting enough nutrition. Loaves & Fishes gets some of its food from community donations (like food drives at schools, concerts or other events) and some through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The majority is purchased directly from food producers, using money from donors.

“For $1 we can provide three balanced, nutritious meals for a person,” Cole says.

Ready says adults who are in poverty have children who face difficulty breaking free from poverty themselves. A child who doesn’t have enough to eat won’t be able to perform well in school, which closes doors in the working world.

“I think people view poverty as a personal failing,” he says. “People do have to be responsible for their own lives, but it’s difficult for a person who grows up poor to not remain poor.”

HRI has a “housing hour,” at 4 p.m. each Wednesday, when anyone can walk into the office at 420 E. Alcott St. to seek help. Sometimes local politicians, journalists and others observe housing hour. Afterwards, they tell Davis they had no idea of the immense need for affordable housing in Kalamazoo.

“These are our citizens,” Cooney says. “How can this not be the highest priority?”

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