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Families Living in Poverty in Southeast Michigan

In our state, 25 percent of kids now live in poverty. What does it mean to grow up poor in metro Detroit? What are their hopes for the future? Local families share their reality.

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Christina Sanders knows what it's like to grow up poor. Her childhood in Hattiesburg, Miss. lacked so many of the simple joys that typify being a kid: toys, a birthday party held in her honor, a family trip, resources and support to take part in recreational activities like cheerleading or band. Even the most basic of necessities – like food, clothing and shelter – were often a luxury out of reach.

"When you're not sure if you will have a meal the next day, you eat as much as you can when food is available," she says.

A trio of milestones from her childhood made it almost insurmountable for her to be anything but poor: In foster care by age 5. Pregnant at age 14. Homeless by 15. Her teenage years were spent finding refuge with friends or, as a last resort, staying in hotels with different men.

Now, at age 28, she's the mother of three – and still poor. So are her kids. And so the cycle continues. Or at least that's the fear.

A 2010 study of childhood poverty by The Urban Institute conducted by the University of Michigan found that almost a third of children born into poverty (32 percent) remain in poverty into adulthood.

Since December 2007, the United States has officially been in a recession, an economic slow-down that's created ripples in the lives of Americans: unemployment or lower-paying jobs, loss of wealth from the stock market and a drop in home equity – the list goes on and on. But one of the most significant and perhaps under-reported ripples has been the profound increase in kids growing up poor.

Here in Michigan, 1 in 4 children, or about 570,000 kids, live in poverty, which means that a quarter of our state's kids live in a household that makes less than $23,000 (for a family of four). It's a 9 percent increase in child poverty since 2000, according to the 2011 Kids Count Data Book, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Michigan League for Human Services.

In the report, released earlier this year, Kids Count in Michigan director Jane Zehnder-Merrell summed up the sobering data with this succinct comparison: "Poverty in Michigan is as big a threat to our children today as polio was to a previous generation." That's not hyperbole.

The report goes on to indicate that 341,000 kids in Michigan are living in areas of extreme poverty, meaning a family of four is earning less than $11,000 a year. Thirty-two of 83 counties in Michigan have large numbers of children growing up in high-poverty communities.

For Christina Sanders' kids and the other Michigan kids growing up poor today, this means a markedly increased risk of chronic health problems, developmental delays and the real risk of perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

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