Leelanau Needs to Address ‘Poverty in Paradise’

On a cold Sunday in January, a few years ago, Trinity Church in Northport hosted a Sunday afternoon panel discussion on ‘Poverty in Paradise’—hoping to start an ongoing conversation on how Christians could serve their neighbors who weren’t thriving. We set up chairs for 25, but more than 100 people came, standing against the wall, listening to the social workers, educators, local politicians and Tribal leaders talk about the hidden poverty in a county that presents as a natural paradise. 

It was one of the more heartening public meetings I’ve attended—great questions, viable proposals for helping Leelanau residents of all ages, connecting citizens who see it as their duty to help. One man, who owns a successful local business, said he could double his workforce—they had the orders and facilities, he paid well and offered a solid benefit package–if only these new workers didn’t have to drive from Buckley or Kalkaska, where they could afford to live.

Over and over, we heard the refrain: We don’t want Leelanau County to be a necklace of upscale resort towns, spaced along M-22 (the scenic drive that hugs the Lake Michigan and West Bay shoreline). We don’t want the most beautiful natural sites and farmland to be scooped up by international and out-of-state buyers, who see our natural resources as their cash cow.

We want people living here year-round, investing in the county, its residents and businesses. Putting down roots. Sharing in the benefits, building new opportunities. Paying taxes. We want folks with a moderate income: Teachers. Nurses and medical techs. First responders. Construction workers.

At this meeting, there was no dissent around the idea that addressing poverty would be good for everyone—from the million-dollar homeowner to the single mom supporting three kids while working at a nursing home. Businesses need workers (and need to pay them fairly). Schools need students and families. A vibrant service industry is essential, as is a new generation of farmers. When everyone is comfortable and secure, we all benefit.

There are genuinely poor residents here—families and individuals who live below the poverty line. Only about six percent of County residents meet that standard. But 37 percent of county residents are ALICE: asset-limited, income-constrained, employed:

Developed by United Way, ALICE is “a new way of defining and understanding the struggles of households that earn above the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford a bare-bones household budget.” ALICE metrics take into account where families live on a state, county, and township level — and more crucially, what the cost of living is in those areas.

Looking at ALICE numbers tells a different story about Leelanau County…a staggering 43 percent of Leelanau County households cannot afford any unexpected expenses (such as car repairs, health deductibles) or increases in basic expenses (such as food, transportation, childcare, a basic phone plan).

The county government can create or influence policy to provide or incentivize the things that foster equity: Affordable housing. Early childhood programs, healthy public schools and dependable childcare. Reliable public transportation, like convenient BATA buses. Expansion of affordable broadband to every household.

Private and non-profit projects that address housing and food insecurity must be welcomed and nurtured. The Poor Farm Garden, in Kasson Township, raises and distributes hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables, partnering with Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan and 5Loaves2Fish to donate healthy vegetables to food insecure households in northwestern Michigan, on the same soil as the original County Farm, purchased in 1901 by Leelanau County, to provide for the poor.

Here’s a quote from the Leelanau County Historic Preservation Society: Empathy and compassion is baked into this soil and has survived through this partnership. It also reminds us that after all this time we still have people in need…”

At a recent Township Board meeting, after a discussion about a small-scale affordable housing issue, a man in the audience stood up and said “I’m sick of giving people handouts. If they want to live here, they should come up with the money.”

The problem is—our property values (including that gentleman’s property) are rising precipitously. People have been priced out of their own homes, and are unable to fill jobs, raise families and build lives here. And we need those year-round, employed families.

Investment in programming and services is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

2 Comments

  1. Astute observations about the challenges our County Commissioners face to keep and made Leelanau an inviting place for families, not just retirees who have finds to own large homes here.

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