Monday, December 10, 2007

Looking for help: Poverty on rise in Michigan

from The Daily Press and Argus

By Chris Andrews

Barry Henderson never imagined the course his life would take when he accepted a job as a human resources director in Lansing six years ago.

"I was a professional person all my life, and I was making $80,000 a year, and then I got sick," he said. "I wasn't prepared for that."

Henderson, who has lupus, has undergone multiple surgeries, is homebound and unable to work. He depends on Social Security and food assistance to get by.

He is among the growing number of Michigan residents living in poverty. A new report by the Michigan League for Human Services says that 13.3 percent of Michigan residents - or 1.3 million - were in poverty in 2006, up from 9.4 percent five years earlier.

"The Changing Face of Poverty in Michigan" report paints a bleak picture about conditions for many families in Michigan.

Among the findings:

• Families are earning less. The median household income of $47,182 is down 7.5 percent since 2001, when adjusted for inflation. It is also below the national average of $48,451.

• About 52 percent of Michigan renters are paying at least 30 percent of their household income on rent, including utilities. That's up 12 percent from 40 percent in 2001.

• Nearly 30,000 homes were in some stage of foreclosure in the third quarter of 2007, representing one of every 102 households. That's nearly double the national rate.

• There were 450,000 fewer Michigan residents covered by private health insurance plans in 2005-06 than in 2000-01.

• The number of working poor, not on welfare, receiving food assistance more than doubled between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2006.

"There is a lot of dislocation going on, and we have increasing numbers of families who are falling into hard times," said Sharon Parks, vice president of the league. "They are depending on a social safety net that is severely strained."

Henderson, 48, can attest to that. He said he had to fight the Department of Human Services bureaucracy for more than two years to get food assistance.

He said he still is not receiving all to which he is entitled but can't get the DHS to help him fill out forms - a problem because he has very poor vision. And he believes his complaints will bring reprisals.

"I have to make choices between paying the co-pay on my prescriptions, which means not getting the prescriptions, or getting food," he said. "It really does come down to that."

Social services agencies report growing demand for help on a variety of fronts.

"We're getting a lot of calls for assistance around rent and utilities and those kinds of issues, said Mike Brown, executive director of the Capital Area United Way. "Foreclosures is another issue that has really grown in the last six months."

Brown said about 50,000 tri-county residents have sought help from food pantries in the past year.

Parks of the League for Human Services said that's in part because of the loss of the good-paying jobs to which the state has been accustomed in the past. "As our economy has changed we have more and more people working in jobs that pay very low wages," she said.

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