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Report: More Michigan children living in poverty

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- The number of Michigan children living in poverty soared to more than a half-million by 2011 as many families in the state continue to face low wages, unemployment and cuts in social programs, according to a new report released Thursday.

To see complete poverty details in your county, log on to www.mlpp.org.

The annual Kids Count in Michigan Data Book found the number of children living in families with incomes below the poverty level grew 28 percent between 2005 and 2010. The report defines the poverty level for a single parent with two children as an annual income of about $18,000.

Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count in Michigan project director at the Michigan League for Public Policy, said many families are struggling to provide for children in their "formative years when they need adequate nutrition, stable housing and quality care to prepare them for adulthood."

The report examines four areas of child well-being: economic security, health, family and community, and education. It compiles data from state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau. The Michigan League for Public Policy, a Lansing-based group advocating for low-income residents, released the report with help from child advocacy group Michigan's Children. The groups use indicators, such as the child poverty rate, to evaluate how Michigan children are faring in those areas of well-being.

All indicators pointing to economic security for Michigan children worsened, Zehnder-Merrell said. In addition to a swollen child poverty rate, the report showed significant increases between 2005 and 2011 in the percentage of children through the age of 5 who qualified for food assistance. The percentage of students in the state's public school system who qualified for free or reduced price lunches also increased between 2006 and 2011.

Zehnder-Merrell said the "persistent decline" in Michigan's economy and high unemployment were significant contributors to these trends.  While Michigan's unemployment rate has improved since 2009, it remains above the national average at nearly 9 percent.

"I don't think most people in Michigan would say their lives have been changed dramatically by an economic upturn," she said.  

Zehnder-Merrell said the problem is two-fold.

While many Michigan residents are bringing in less income, the state has cut programs that help those who are struggling, like unemployment benefits, she said.  

Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill in 2011 to reduced state unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks starting with filers in 2012.  

"When you cut off unemployment benefits, these people who had an income aren't going to be able to get any kind of assistance, besides maybe food stamps," Zehnder-Merrell said.  

The report also shows the disparity between Michigan's richest and poorest counties in terms of child well-being, she said.  

In Livingston County, the childhood poverty rate was the lowest at about 8 percent, but in Lake County, the rate topped 45 percent. Zehnder-Merrell said even children in the state's most affluent counties saw a decline in economic security.

Zehnder-Merrell said some of the report's results are encouraging.  Michigan's infant mortality rate dropped by about 8 percent between, according to the report. Additionally, 6,000 fewer Michigan children lived in foster care in 2010 compared with five years earlier.

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