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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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Many of the children coming to the center are thus overweight, a common health concern among children from low-income families. When Alex Plum, Baldwin's associate director for programs, first joined the center, he couldn't help but notice that many of the children would come to the center with fingers orange from eating Cheetos.

"We're working with the community now to make a culture change," he says. "We're trying to lead them through how to incorporate healthier living."

To that end, Fuller tries to incorporate yoga and other physical activity into the programs she leads at Baldwin, hoping not only to help the kids become more active but to help raise their self-esteem.

Questioning self-worth

Positive self-esteem can be a challenge for the most privileged of children to develop. Poor children experiencing stressors that most adults would struggle to overcome are even more susceptible to a poor self-image.

Christina Sanders recalls feelings of shame over having too few clothes to wear growing up, an experience that absolutely affected her sense of self-worth.

"What I did have didn't fit and never matched," she recalls. "My hair was never done. I didn't want to bring attention to myself because I was so embarrassed, and, as a result, I became really introverted."

Three months behind on her rent and facing eviction, Pote laments that her children are in a similar situation. Her youngest lacks appropriate shoes for school.

"She has only flip flops," Pote says. "She has no tennis shoes, and I don't have a penny to my name."

And so Madalyn will take on the fall in sandals, and bear the stares, comments and teasing of classmates who, at her age, are sure to point it out.

It's not the first time clothing has been an issue for the Potes – and specifically little Madalyn.

"I've had to go to school in dirty clothes," says the third grader. "One of the girls in my class called me a dirty girl. I felt really bad."

Pote also worries about her oldest daughter, 16-year-old Alissa, who is feeling the stresses and strains of being a teenager compounded by her family's financial situation. Unlike her friends, Alissa hasn't been able to take driver's training, and even if she had, no wheels await her upon the course's completion. She spent her summer stuck at home watching her little brother and sister while her friends hit up the pool and enjoyed being teenagers.

"She has a lot of resentment and anger," Pote says. "She doesn't want to go to school and would prefer to do virtual home schooling, but we don't have a computer or Internet. I worry about her."

Determined it will be different for them

Taking steps to end the cycle of poverty she has always known, Christina Sanders, at 17 and pregnant with her second child, applied to be part of Lighthouse of Oakland County's PATH program. For two years, she lived in the supportive environment of PATH and prepared to live independently through the program's empowerment and life skills programming.

Nowadays, Sanders can be found Monday through Friday at W.H.R.C. Elementary School in Pontiac, where she works as a building helper. Simultaneously, she is studying phlebotomy at Oakland Community College. Through PATH, she is now in her own house, where she resides with her children. Though still living below the poverty line and receiving food assistance, Sanders doesn't consider herself poor.

"Compared to where I was, what I grew up knowing, I am not poor," she says. "I am getting by. The life I had as a child, I don't want that for my children."

Treasure Moore is hopeful to land a nursing assistant or home health care position soon, so she can move her family out of the shelter and into a better life.

"I live for my children," she says. "I am living for them until they can live for themselves."

Joy Pote has signed up for full-time schooling and, like Sanders, will be studying phlebotomy. Terrified to take out yet another loan, she sees it as the only way.

"I don't even have a credit card," she says. "But my situation won't change if I don't do this."

Policy changes steepen the climb

Government programs aimed at helping struggling families during times of extreme duress have seen cuts in recent years, taking away some of the safety nets that poor families have been able to rely on in the past.

"Single women with children have typically been able to fall back on cash assistance if they were to lose their job," explains Zehnder-Merrell. "Now it's time-limited, and they can take advantage of it only for 48 months over their entire lifetime.

"And the amount of the grant that funds the cash assistance program for women with dependent children is half what it was 15 years ago. The amount has not been adjusted for inflation."

Similarly, the change in the traditional period of unemployment from 26 to 20 weeks means tough times for those struggling are likely to get tougher.

"There's much less public support for struggling families at a time when Michigan's economy is reeling, and we are adjusting to a very different world," Zehnder-Merrell says. "People can't find work without these programs in place. The next generation is bearing a big price."

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