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Grand Rapids Poverty rates and the GR Press

January 21, 2010

The lead story in the Grand Rapids Press today was based on a recent study by the Brookings Institute on the increase in levels of poverty for Grand Rapids and its surrounding suburbs.

According to the data the percentage of people living in poverty in Grand Rapids increased by 8.9% since 2000 and for those in its surrounding communities the rate increased 4.9%. The total amount of people living in poverty for Grand Rapids now stands at 24.7%, meaning one-quarter of the population, which saw the steepest rise in poverty rates of the 95 cities investigated in the Brookings study. The percentage of the population in the surrounding communities now stands at 11.2%.

Considering such alarming numbers, whom does the Press reporter talk to for reactions? First, they quote one of the Brookings research analysts, Elizabeth Kneebone who says, It is putting additional strain on a safety net that is not as well developed.

Next the Press reporter talks to Steve Gibson who works for a social service agency in Byron Center. Gibson said that many of the people they serve no used to be middle class. “I hear it over and over and over again, that we used to donate to you,” Gibson said.

The only other source cited in the story was George Erickcek, senior analyst for the Kalamazoo-based Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Erickcek is a regular source for the Press and acts as its unofficial economic expert. His response to the findings of the Brookings report was, “It penalizes you for being low at the start. Grand Rapids is worse than before. But it’s definitely not a basket case. The manufacturing sector has been hard hit. I’m not surprised to see an increase in poverty. But for me, it’s more important to see the total level of poverty.”

What do you suppose Erickcek means by the “total level of poverty.” My suspicion is that he is not talking about the harsh reality of living in poverty that goes beyond statistics and this is what is missing from the Press article. We do now get the perspective of people living in poverty. There is not person or family that lives in poverty that is source in this story. We do not hear their perspective on the realities of poverty but we do hear an economic “expert” who doesn’t seem to be “surprised to see an increase in poverty.” 

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