Study: Detroit worst big city for childhood poverty

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Detroit continues to have more children living in extreme poverty than any of the nation's 50 largest cities, according to a national report released Thursday.

More than 59 percent of Detroit children lived in poverty in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the national Kids Count report, an annual project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The number of poor Detroit kids increased 34 percent since 2006, according to the study, which was partially funded by the Skillman Foundation.

It's part of a statewide problem in Michigan, where one in four children live in extreme poverty, according to the report. The number of Michigan children mired in poverty increased 35 percent over six years, to nearly 25 percent.

More than a half-million Michigan kids were found to be living in poverty, defined as $23,600 or less a year for a two-parent family of four. Among African American children, 48 percent were living in poverty statewide.

"It's just stunning to think of the level of deprivation that represents, and what we know (about) how living in poverty over an extended period of time does to children," said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count project director for Michigan at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Zehnder-Merrell said the negative effects of poverty are exacerbated by steep cuts to social services that coincided with the recession.

"It's amazing to think what a double whammy this has been. First you have this recession, and then at the same time you cut social services that used to help people get through the hard times. (Michigan's) response has been to cut services to families."

The side effects of poverty spill over to other measures of well-being included in the study. Reports of child abuse and neglect increased 77 percent in Detroit from 2008-12, with about 15 percent of Detroit children living in homes that have been investigated by child protection workers.

Confirmed neglect or abuse increased 40 percent. The death rate for young people ages 1-19 increased 14 percent between 2004 and 2012, mostly because of increased homicide and suicide among teenagers.

"(For) a family that is struggling from one day to the next to keep food on the table, to keep their home warm, to keep a roof over their head even though it leaks, making sure a child develops developmentally is a lower priority," said Dr. Herman Gray, vice president of pediatric services at the Detroit Medical Center.

"First and foremost, they're fighting for survival. We also see abuse, both physical and no-physical maltreatment, when you have a family living under extreme stress due to poverty — they are more likely to lash out against their children."

The report showed improvements in some measures of well-being. The number of children in out-of-home care decreased 71 percent in Detroit, and 33 percent statewide. Births to teens ages 15-19 decreased 13 percent in Detroit, and 16 percent across the state.

The number of fourth-graders scoring "not proficient" in reading declined 24 percent in Michigan, and 16 percent in Detroit, from the 2008-09 school year to the 2013-14 school year.

Gray, the DMC doctor, noted that the increase in poverty coincides with Michigan's economic recovery.

"This has pretty profound implications for public policy because we're not seeing the increase in individual family and child well-being that you would expect to see," Gray said.

"The upper end of the economy is seeing a much more positive impact from the economic recovery than the lower end."