Robert Traviss’s house, if you can call it that, is an old camper trailer he shares with two Chihuahuas named Spaz and Boots. The trailer is parked in the side yard of the home, now rotting away, where he grew up. A second camper trailer, even older, is in the front yard and is filled with the tools he used before a stroke left him disabled.
The detritus of his life – a lawn mower, an upholstered recliner, a couple of plastic buckets, an old car that hasn’t run in months – are scattered around the yard
From the camper’s door, Traviss, 55, can look across fields, where deer graze. If he steps outside with his walker and surveys the neighborhood, he sees poverty – rural poverty, the kind that is little noticed by much of the nation. He used to be a machinist and a tool and die maker, but now, since the stroke, his only income is from Social Security disability.
“It’s not enough. I can tell you that,” he said. “It’s hard to get by out here. For me it’s rough. There’s a lot of people in a lot worse shape than me.”
His mailing address is Chase, a wisp of a town in Lake County in West Michigan, by many measures the poorest county in the state. But it’s not the only county that is quietly suffering. While most of Michigan’s poor live in cities, the poverty rate in rural Michigan is higher, particularly in northern Michigan.
Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, 1.6 million Michigan residents – 16.3 percent of the state’s population – remain poor. And 11 of the 13 Michigan counties with poverty rates above 20 percent are largely rural.
“We’ve had a long history of rural poverty,” said H. Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan social work professor and a researcher affiliated with UM’s National Poverty Center.
In 2013, he co-authored a study of “extreme poverty,” which estimated that nationally nearly 1.6 million households with children were trying to survive on less than $2 a day per person, the definition of extreme poverty. “There’s no reason to think Michigan would be any different,” he said.
In the coming months, Bridge will explore life in rural Michigan not seen from the decks of lake cottages or the tops of ski hills. It is a life of high poverty and low life expectancy, of bad health and few jobs. Today, Bridge examines poverty on the back roads of Lake County.
Although the last recession officially ended in June 2009, many rural areas still are far from recovered. For some people in Lake County, the recession was another blip in a long history of destitution.
“There’s just no economic opportunity,” Shaefer said. “A lot of the jobs we used to think of as unskilled are now skilled. A tractor is now a computer. Transportation is a huge problem. If you don’t have a car, it’s pretty tough to get around.”
Food pantries, social service agencies and other programs are harder for rural residents to access because they often lack transportation. Some federal anti-poverty programs, such as Community Development Block Grants and Community Health Centers, were designed more to help the poor in larger cities.
A large portion of Lake County’s poor are senior citizens, who require more services than younger residents, said Colleen Carrington-Atkins, a county commissioner, whose district includes Chase. More than 25 percent of Lake County’s residents are older than 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with a statewide average of 14.6 percent.
“Our churches are struggling, our libraries are struggling and our businesses are struggling,” particularly after tourists load up their boats and go home at the end of summer, Carrington-Atkins said.
In counties like Lake, isolation is a way of life, and hardship passes from generation to generation – out of sight, and out of mind for many of the more affluent.
Political clout dims
“Rural poverty can be invisible unless you’re paying attention,” said Mary Truck, director of FiveCAP, a nonprofit Community Action Program that serves the poor in Lake and neighboring counties. “You drive into Lake County, and you say, ‘Something is different.’ You turn down a road, and you see a shack with all kinds of evidence that they can’t maintain it. There are people in Lake County who live in extreme poverty, and they are the most invisible.”
The elimination of general assistance payments for adults by the state Legislature in the early 1990s, cuts in home heating assistance by state lawmakers this past winter and Congress’s failure to extend long-term unemployment benefits all contributed to the problem, she said.
“The people who make decisions that affect the lives of these people don’t identify with them at all,” Truck said. “I sometimes wonder if they see them as people.”
Lake County Commissioner Robert Myers said he has talked with state elected officials about getting more help for the county’s poor, but the response he got was “all verbiage and no action.”
“I’m very upset with how the state looks at it,” said Myers, a former chair of the county Republican Party. “The point is they don’t take our problem seriously. It’s not a big deal for the politicians to ignore Lake County, because there aren’t a lot of people here,” fewer than 12,000 residents.
Myers noted, for instance, that he is critical of the state and the prison guards’ union for not allowing the reopening the privately owned prison in Baldwin. “There’s no income in this county to support what the needs are,” he said. “You gotta have revenue from business. We have no business in Lake County. We don’t have a stoplight in the whole county. We don’t have a car dealership in the whole county.”
From resort to last resort
In its heyday, Lake County was a resort destination. Throughout much of the 20th century, the tiny settlement of Idlewild drew black entertainers and their fans who found other resorts closed to them. As more overt forms of discrimination ebbed, Idlewild became little more than a memory with an historic cultural center. Most of the county’s 575 square miles are covered with state and federal forests. Its largest employer, a privately owned prison in Baldwin, closed in 2005.
More than 24 percent of Lake County’s residents live in poverty, nearly four times the rate in Livingston County, the most affluent county in Michigan, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Lake County’s median household income of $30,390 is less than half Livingston County’s $72,396.
Lake certainly has its rivals for poorest Michigan county. Clare County’s poverty rate (defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a family of four earning $23,283 a year or less, or $11,945 for an individual under 65) is 24.8 percent, but its median household income is higher than Lake County’s. Officially, Isabella County has the highest poverty rate in Michigan – 32.1 percent – but the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the rate would drop to 18 percent if it excluded Central Michigan University students living off-campus.
The gap between the richest and the poorest counties in Michigan can be measured in more than dollars. Counties with higher rates of poverty generally have lower life expectancies, and higher rates of substance abuse and chronic illness.
In Lake, the average life expectancy for males born in 2010 is 75 years, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. In Livingston County, it is 78 years. In Lake County, 45 percent of females are obese. In Livingston County, it’s 32.6 percent.
Lake County has higher rates of cancer deaths, diabetes, teen pregnancies and low-birth-weight babies than the state average, according to District Health Department No. 10. Its residents are also more likely to suffer high blood pressure.
All this hardship is particularly tough on children, said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count project director at the Michigan League for Public Policy. Researcher call it “toxic stress,” which is itself strongly associated with increased risks of lifelong health and social problems, including smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, domestic violence and depression.
“We’re learning a lot about toxic stress,” Zehnder-Merrell said . “You’re always in this state of mind that I’ve got to fight or run away. It’s hard to think about the future.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lake also has the state’s highest rate of confirmed child abuse cases, the 2013 Kids Count report found, with Lake ranking worst in eight of the report’s 15 indicators of child well-being. In contrast, Livingston County ranked best in five. Forty-eight percent of Lake County children live in poverty, the report found, compared with nine percent in Livingston County.
Struggling to help
Michigan’s rural poor face challenges getting services, acknowledged Michigan Department of Human Services spokesperson Bob Wheaton. “One of the biggest challenges in rural counties is transportation,” he said. People who need help often live quite a distance from the closest DHS office, and they often don’t have a reliable car. And with a lack of transportation, it’s often difficult for people to access nutritional food.
Lake County is trying to address the transportation gap through a dial-a-ride service paid for through a county millage. DHS also offers tokens for transportation, but some of the poor live so far off major roads that public transportation can’t reach them.
DHS also offers Lake County rent-free office space for other social service efforts, such as a domestic violence center, housing assistance and a parenting education program.
That’s good, but what the county really needs is jobs, county and state officials agree. Lake’s county commission is working on an economic development plan, Carrington-Atkins said, though she bemoaned that such a plan was not created earlier. “One of the problems with economic development in Lake County is there wasn’t enough focus on it in the past.”
With no manufacturing and few job prospects, Wheaton said communities in rural regions like Lake County are drying up. “A lot of these towns are just a gas station and a bar,” Wheaton said.
Little hope for escape
While some see education as a ticket out of poverty, many children immersed in generations of hardship see little hope or motivation for rising above it, Zehnder-Merrell said. Fourth grade students in Lake County scored worse on standardized reading tests than students in all but one Michigan county.
Nearly half (48 percent) of Lake County high school students fail to graduate on time, the Kids Count report found.
The annual reports were started “with the premise that if people knew what poverty was doing to families and children, they would do something about it,” Zehnder-Merrell said. “The exact opposite is happening.”
That may be changing. Baldwin Public Schools received a $750,000 grant from the state to retrofit its schools to go to a balanced schedule, in which there are more breaks during the traditional school year, but a shorter summer break to lesson summer learning loss.
Baldwin Schools also has their own version of the Kalamazoo Promise - offering up to $5,000 per year for college and career training for Baldwin graduates.
“It’s all about education,” said State Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newago, whose district includes Lake County. “If we don’t have quality schools, especially in Lake County, the dropout rate will be high and the poverty rate will be high.”
Sitting in his yard in Chase, Robert Traviss shares that concern about the kids. “Yeah, this town, it ain’t got nothing for the kids,” he said.
A car pulled up in front, and Randy and Dolores Libey stepped out to give Traviss a bag of chips and a bottle of pop – not that they have much to give. The Libeys used to live around the corner, but moved after child protective services workers warned they would lose custody of her daughter, because the trailer they were renting had no heat or running water.
Down miles of barely passable roads, they led the way to where they now live: a mobile home in the woods they rent for $475 a month. She makes $7.85 an hour working 28 hours a week at Subway in neighboring Osceola County. He used to work at McDonalds, but lost that job after taking off work due to panic attacks. He’s on medication for schizophrenia and receives $740 a month in disability. At 35, she takes medication for arthritis, diabetes and glaucoma.
Both admit they’ve done time – she for writing bad checks, and he for accessory to arson and burglary – and say they once were addicted to cocaine, which temporarily cost them custody of her daughter. They got her back three years ago and say they have been drug free for five years.
“We get food stamps, but it never seems like it’s enough with a 14 year old who’s growing,” Dolores Libey said. “I worry about all kinds of stuff, my bills, my mother. I worry all the time.
But she added: “I’ve seen people worse off than we are.
“There’s always someone worse off than we are.”
Ron French contributed to this article