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Living poor, in a county of wealth

Tammy Shire had a good job in middle management making $64,000 a year, not enough to place her within shouting distance of the top one percent, but sufficient to give the single mother of three a comfortable seat in the middle class. If she thought about the poor at all, it was to assume they were to blame for their poverty.

She doesn’t think that anymore. Not only did she descend into poverty, but she did it in Livingston County, the most affluent county in Michigan. She became one of the nouveau poor, dealing with the unfamiliar stress of poverty while, by all appearances, most of those around her were living in middle-class comfort, even luxury.

“It was devastating,” Shire said, “absolutely devastating. Until I started to research the true meaning of poverty, I didn’t realize I was in it.”

From cities to suburbs to small towns and rural areas, poverty is spread throughout the state. No place, not even Livingston County, is immune. Unlike other rural counties, such as Lake County, where poverty is chronic and intergenerational, in Livingston County it is situational, a lingering result of the most recent recession and an economy that has not yet fully recovered.

Livingston County’s median household income of $72,396 is the highest in the state, and its poverty rate of 6.3 percent is the lowest in Michigan, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 estimate. But that still leaves nearly 12,000 of its 184,000 residents in poverty, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as $23,283 a year for a family of four, $11,945 for an individual under age 65.

Poverty jumps in affluent counties

Between 2005 and 2011, child poverty increased most drastically among Michigan’s more affluent counties, including Livingston, Lapeer, Oakland, Ottawa and Clinton counties. Even though Livingston County still had the lowest overall child poverty rate, its percentage of children living in poverty jumped by 60 percent between 2005 and 2011 to 8.8 percent, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy’s Kids Count report.

“I think there’s a misconception that there aren’t any poor living in Livingston County or Oakland County, for that matter,” said Ron Borngesser, chief executive of Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency (OLHSA), a nonprofit Community Action Program. “That’s not the case.”

The last recession officially ended in June 2009, although the financial and emotional distress for many families did not. After previous recessions, most jobs came back.

“That didn’t happen this time,” Borngesser said. “Certainly this last recession hit us harder than anything I’ve seen before.”

Many of the jobs that did come back were part-time and lower paying. Borngesser suspects the actual poverty rate might be higher than the 6.3 percent estimated by the Census Bureau.

“What we do know is every community in Livingston County was affected – Howell, Brighton, Fowlerville, Pinckney, Gregory,” he said. “It’s not in pockets; it’s spread all over the county.”

Before the recession, “these individuals had good jobs and didn’t need our assistance,” Borngesser said. “A lot of them didn’t even know we existed. A lot of them didn’t know who to turn to.”

Requests for food, rent, home heating and other assistance reached record levels. “We could have served a lot more if we had the resources,” Borngesser said. “The money doesn’t go far enough. We were at capacity, no question about it.”

During better times, many newcomers moved out from Detroit and its suburbs to small towns like Brighton, Howell and Fowlerville. New subdivisions with homes selling for $200,000 to $300,000 sprang up in what once was farmland. Shopping centers and chain restaurants followed. Many of the new residents commuted to jobs in Lansing, Ann Arbor and the Detroit area.

American dream slips away

Then the Great Recession hit in late 2007, and Livingston County’s unemployment rate soared from a low of 4.7 percent in May 2006 to 14.8 percent in February 2010. Many of those new homes went into foreclosure, and, for the first time in their lives, many residents could not pay their bills.

As a self-employed contractor, Robert Tyrer had painted many of those new houses in Livingston County. “I was never wealthy,” he said, “but I was doing OK.”

Heart disease and the recession changed that, and Tyrer, now 60, ended up living in his van, even when the temperature dipped to zero. With OLHSA’s help, he now has a small apartment in Howell and collects $700 a month in Supplemental Security Income.

“I’m grateful for the little apartment I have, but it’s not what I thought I’d end up with,” Tyrer said. “I was just counting the money I have left for the month – $200 and some cents –and I gotta go buy groceries. The last couple of months have been hell.”

Borngesser said that’s typical for many of his new clients, hit not only by a loss of income, but a loss of self-worth. Many descend into depression

“The emotional damage is huge,” he said. “That’s what we found a lot of times is that the emotional stress is as bad as anything else. It’s hard to think rationally that there is a way out. We’re here to show them there is a way out.”

Paralyzed by stress

Shire, 46, concedes she couldn’t always see a way out. For years, she had worked for a company that built retirement communities. As the recession set in and the housing market dried up, she was laid off in January 2009. Her severance money lasted until July of that year, and then, for the first time in her life, she began drawing unemployment.

“I got my kids living in a middle-class attitude with a mom who’s in a poverty attitude. To not have everything their friends had was hard for them to understand.” – Tammy Shire, on living in poverty in affluent Livingston County.

“By October, I was completely paralyzed,” Shire said. “I hadn’t been making rent payments. I was juggling bills. I was extremely worried and stressed out. You go into survival mode. The weight on my shoulders was unbearable. Your physical health suffers when you’re not mentally well. I was living moment to moment. I cried every day. I was totally overwhelmed and lost in a system I did not understand.”

In 2011, she maxed out her unemployment benefits, and her income dropped to zero. Her landlord tried to evict her and then, with no rent coming in, he lost the house through foreclosure. The bank served her with an eviction notice.

For her three children, then in elementary and high school, the change in status was especially difficult, surrounded as they were by peers with their new clothing, iPads, iPhones and other trappings of middle-class childhood. She tried to shield them, but their behavior and performance in school suffered.

“I got my kids living in a middle-class attitude with a mom who’s in a poverty attitude,” Shire said. “To not have everything their friends had was hard for them to understand.”

Unlike many of the rural poor, Shire finally can see better times in sight. She got help from OLHSA and found a small house to rent in Pinckney. She is engaged now and is sharing expenses with her fiancé, who has a job.

With no job prospect herself, she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in psychology and is studying for her state licensing exam.

“I’ve made it,” Shire said, “and I’m doing OK. She said the last few years have given her a new understanding of what it means to be poor.

“I’m embarrassed to say I blamed it on them,” she said. “I think I was really quick to judge. Your priorities change. I have a new understanding of people in my position and what it’s like to be underprivileged.”

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