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Kent County: A great place to start a business and raise your family…..if you’re white

August 30, 2021

Last week, while several hundred people who oppose a mask mandate issue by the local Health Department addressed Kent County Commissioners, I went on the County’s site to look for some information.

While looking for information about the Commission meeting, I came across what you see here below, which is a screen shot that appears at the bottom of the Kent County Government site. This is how those at the Kent County government level want us to see the county, through these numbers and the organizations included here. Let’s take a critical look at this information and deconstruct it, since this is not the lived experience of thousands of people who live in this county.

So, there are seven ways that the county wants us to see them, and thus, the residents of this area. First, they present a Triple-A credit rating from Standard & Poors Global and from Moody’s Investor Services. Both entities are integral parts of the larger capitalist/investor sector, providing ratings on how financially sound an entity is. The metrics they use are biased in favor of what the capitalist/investor sector holds dear. Think of it like the GPD, the Gross Domestic Product, which is how countries often measure themselves. However, such measurements often do not take into account the quality of life for communities. 

The Kent County government might be considered fiscally sound, but how do we measure that in terms of the quality of life for the residents in Kent County? The county has a reserve of funds and has for years, so why is that money not invested in the most marginalized families in the county? For example, if we look at a report released in March of 2021, the Kent County Community Health Needs Assessment, we see a much different picture of the quality of life for people in this county. One major statistic from the report, focusing on economic security stands in sharp contrast to the Triple-A credit rating. The economic security statistic found in the report states, “1 in 4 people were unable to pay for housing, utilities, food or medical care in the past year.” This is a sobering contrast to how the County values fiscal security. 

The second selling point from Kent County is that this county is “ranked #1 metro area to raise a family out of 100 largest metros, according to Forbes. Again, what are the metrics being used to measure this reality? More importantly, the question should be which families are more likely to have a good quality of life in Kent County? Again, the Kent County Community Health Needs Assessment report can provide us with some useful comparisons. For white people, the unemployment rate is 3.5%, whereas for African Americans the number is 11.1%, more than 3 times higher. Another instructive statistic shows that the median household income for white families is $67,324, but for African Americans that number drops to $35,203. Kent County might be ranked #1 for white people to raise a family, but this is not the case for Black, Indigenous and other communities of color.

The third point that the County’s website brags about states, “Ranked #3 in Leading Locations Report,” from the Area Development Magazine. This designation has to do with best markets to do business in, as well as development projects. Kent County, and Grand Rapids in particular, have excelled in the going business and development arenas, since owning a business in this community as sacrosanct. 

Here, we could compare this ranking with housing in the community. Once again, the Kent County Community Health Needs Assessment report released earlier this year can provide us with some important information. The report identifies the following 4 points of input from the community:

  • Gentrification of Grand Rapids neighborhoods
  • Increasing rent prices 
  • Rental process is burdensome, competitive, and expensive when having to apply for multiple rental units 
  • Racial inequities in home ownership

An additional piece of data from the report states:

“In Kent County, non-Hispanic Whites make up 87.3% of all homeowners and 73.8% of the population. In Grand Rapids, this gap is even larger, despite a higher proportion of non-White homeowners in the city (21.6%), 78.4% of homeowners are non-Hispanic White compared to just 59.0% of the population.”

Once again, the ranking is only a benefit to certain sectors of those who live in Kent County.

The fourth point listed on the county’s site says, “2nd Best large city to start a business.” Again, the question should be asked if this is the case for everyone, or primarily for white people. We all know about the report from 2015, where Grand Rapids is the second worst city for African Americans economically, which also applied to Black businesses. There have been efforts to change that dynamic, in terms of Black people starting new businesses, but this has been slow going, especially with the onset of COVID in March of 2020. In some ways, it seems like this fourth ranking is especially insulting, since there isn’t much evidence that Black-run businesses are on the rise in a substantial way. One last point about the socio-economic condition of Black people in Kent County, is that according to the 2020 Census, Black people comprise 9.2% of the population, yet roughly 30% of those in the Kent County Jail are Black.

The bottom row, which includes three additional points that Kent County wants to celebrate, are instructive on a different level. None of the three points are about ranking, but they do make certain claims.

The fifth point says that Kent County is “A Great Place to Work.” This point includes as a sub-heading, which says, “Work where diversity, equity and inclusion matter.” I personally detest such phrases, but the point here is that there are literally thousands of people who work in Kent County who would disagree with such a statement. There are thousands of people who make minimum wage in Kent County, and thousands more who work for even less, especially wait staff and agricultural workers, where minimum wages laws don’t apply. Here the Kent County Community Health Needs Assessment report states that 20% of white people could not afford to pay for housing, utilities, food or medical care over the past year. When we look at African Americans the number rises to 41% and 47% for Latinos. Again, for whom is Kent County a great place to work?

The last two points made are just promotional statement for two organizations. Under the heading of, A Great Place for Business, it lists The Right Place Inc., which we identify as part of the Grand Rapids Power Structure. GRIID has also written numerous articles that have been critical of the practices of The Right Place Inc, which are numerous. In addition, it is instructive that the plug for The Right Place Inc, means that four out of seven of the points that Kent County wants to celebrate, are centered around business.

The last point has the heading, A Great Place to Play, with a link to Experience Grand Rapids. Now, a great deal of what Experience posts for play are things that cost money and disproportionately bring people to downtown Grand Rapids, which again leaves lots of people out of the equation.

So, while we are all focused on the anti-mask contingent who are hell-bent on putting us all at risk of COVID exposure, the government of Kent County quietly promotes this area as pro-business, along with a thinly veiled notion that this community is a great place to raise a family……if you are white. 

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