top of page
  • By Lisa Brody

Poverty in Oakland County

The image of people who are poor and suffering from poverty are often of homeless men sleeping on the streets, of a destitute individual living out of their car, or someone holed up at a shelter. There's a school of thought that it's their fault – if they would only get a job, and perhaps give up their addictions, they would be able to pull themselves out of poverty, get a nice home in the suburbs, and live well. That fallacy is multifold, from who is poor today, and the reality that poverty has reached its long tentacles well into America's suburbs, including into the suburbs of wealthy Oakland County. "While the common perception is that poverty is concentrated in cities, the truth is that many more families with incomes below the federal poverty line now live in suburban communities outside of Detroit," stated a report by Lighthouse of Oakland County, a non-profit provider located in Pontiac and Clarkston that offers emergency housing and food to low-income families in Oakland County, as well as providing programs to motivate and teach self-sufficiency and develop financial independence. The Great Recession of the last decade has left a deep handprint upon Oakland County, as well as many suburban areas around the country, that is proving difficult to erase. Elizabeth Kneebone of The Brookings Institute, in a 2013 report Confronting Suburban Poverty, wrote, "Almost every major metro area saw the number of suburban poor living in high-poverty or distressed neighborhoods grow during the 2000s. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of poor residents in the suburbs of the nation's largest metropolitan areas grew by 64 percent – more than twice the growth rate in cities. For the first time, suburbs became home to more poor residents than America's big cities. Today, one in three poor Americans – about 16.4 million people – lives in the suburbs." Kneebone further said, "low-income populations in suburbs surrounding the country's largest metropolitan areas grew 66 percent from 2000 to 2013, while urban cores saw only 30 percent growth. The cause of this can be traced back to the early and mid-2000s when suburban housing was made affordable through housing vouchers and subprime mortgages, which gave millions of low-income Americans access to the suburbs." Then, in 2007 and 2008, the housing bubble burst. Prices plummeted, foreclosure rates escalated, and millions of new suburban homeowners were thrust into poverty. Adding to new suburbanites problems was an inadequacy in the public safety net, which had previously been focused on urban centers which had traditionally dealt with impoverished citizens. In a county such as Oakland, once the fourth wealthiest county in America, according the U.S. Census bureau, in 2012 had fallen to the 24th wealthiest county out of 3,144 counties in the United States – down from seventh in 2010. According to statistical data from Data Driven Detroit, while the majority of poverty is still primarily clustered in typically poorer areas of the county like Pontiac, Oak Park and Hazel Park, there has also been a doubling, or greater, of pockets of poverty in affluent areas of the county, including Bloomfield Township, Farmington Hills, Rochester Hills, Troy, Commerce Township, White Lake and West Bloomfield. "The fact is that Michigan has not had this full rebound," said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of Michigan League for Public Policy. "There are pockets where you don't expect to find poverty. A lot of people lost homes, have had their incomes slashed, lost their jobs and don't have them again, have taken part-time jobs, or are often working two part-time jobs and it's still not enough to support their families. They're living in, or from, affluent areas. The downturn in the economy was very far-reaching, and we're still feeling the effects of it." The U.S. Census released a report on September 13 of this year indicating that incomes of typical Americans rose in 2015 by 5.2 percent, which is the first significant boost to middle class pay not only since the end of the Great Recession, but since 1967, and along with that, the poverty rate fell by 1.2 percentage points nationally – which they termed a statistically significant amount. Yet, the poverty rate continued to remain roughly eight percent nationally. The census bureau suggested the "recovery from the recession is finally beginning to lift the fortunes of large swaths of American workers and families." Yet, there were still 43.1 Americans in poverty across the nation, although that number indicated 3.5 million fewer than in 2015. Locally, out of a current population of just over 1.2 million residents in Oakland County, 121,857 residents were considered below the poverty level in 2014, almost double the number in 1999, when there were 65,478. Of those numbers, 14 percent, or 11,516, were younger than six years of age; 12.4 percent, or 11,228, were between six and 11 years old; 11 percent, or 10,830, were between 12 and 17 years; 9.7 percent of those in poverty, or 74,675 individuals, were between 18 and 64 years old; 7.2 percent, 7,666 people, were between 65 and 74; and 5,942 people, or 7.8 percent were 75 and older. "Oakland County is still one of the wealthiest counties, and although it has fallen down, it still has poverty below 10 percent," said Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit. "But that does not make up for that fact that the number of people that have fallen below the poverty level has more than doubled in the last 10 to 12 years. Poverty is certainly (more) concentrated in certain communities. But, in the last decade, when the recession hit, a lot of homes were lost by people who were under water. People lost jobs, and they couldn't afford their homes. The number of vacant homes then became rentals, which then allowed a number of lower economic folk, people who are right at the poverty level, to move in. If they could get out of Detroit and rent, they did. We saw this mostly in southern Oakland County and Macomb County." Metzger said that while Oakland County has seen a significant spike in the poverty level, "Macomb County has seen larger spikes in poverty levels. A lot of that was Detroiters moving in, along with people losing their jobs." The unemployment rate has fallen significantly since its height, with Oakland County releasing numbers in January 2016 that compare December 2011 to December 2015. For Oakland County as a whole, December 2011 had an unemployment number of 7.9 percent, compared to 2015, when it hit a low of 4.2 percent, where it remains. Pontiac had a high of 17.5 percent in 2011, versus 2015, at 9.8 percent, still quite high. Southfield had unemployment of 11.1 percent in 2011; in 2015, six percent, while neighboring Oak Park had an unemployment level of 12.8 percent in 2011, and seven percent in 2015. In Bloomfield Township, December 2011 saw an unemployment high of 5.5 percent; today, it is at 2.9 percent. Yet there is a current poverty level of six percent – more than double 2000's 2.5 percent. Rochester Hills experienced an unemployment level of 6.6 percent in December 2011, while it dropped to 3.5 percent in December 2015. The poverty level in Rochester Hills is 6.1 percent, up from 3.4 percent in 2000; and in Rochester, the poverty level is 5.4 percent, double 2000's 2.7 percent. West Bloomfield had 6.8 employment in 2011; and 3.6 percent in 2015, with a poverty level of 6.4 percent; while nearby Farmington Hills had 5.1 percent unemployment in 2011, and 2.7 percent in 2015. Its poverty level in 2014 was 7.9 percent; in 2000, it was 4.1 percent. The city of Farmington had a poverty level of 6.1 percent in 2014, versus 3.3 percent in 2000. Rick David, executive officer of Lighthouse, said those numbers can be deceiving because they belie the number of working poor in each community, those who are gainfully employed, but many are employed below their previous employment levels and earn less than they did before. The working poor in the United States are those who work, but their incomes tend to fall below a specific poverty line, and they are not counted as either unemployed or within poverty levels. They could be underemployed, working part-time, or earning less than they need to meet their needs. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for a family of four, the 2016 federal poverty level in the 48 contiguous states is $24,300; for a family of three, it is $20,160. At the same time, the Michigan League for Public Policy estimates in Oakland County, a family of three needs an annual income of $46,944 to meet their basic needs – an income level that is 240 percent of the federal poverty level. The poverty level amounts are used to determine eligibility of people applying for reduced cost healthcare coverage, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programs (SNAP) – previously known as food stamps, senior care services, community service block grants, Head Start, free and reduced school lunch programs, and other services. "The working poor fall just above the poverty threshold, but are often just one paycheck away from spiraling out of control, which would put them into poverty if they couldn't pull it together," said Liz McLachlan, chief development director of Lighthouse. "Many are one medical bill, one car repair, one bump in the road from spiraling down. The concept is before people become stable or self-sufficient, they have to have their needs met. Families have to make tough choices – they may have to decide not to pay their gas bill in the summer months because they don't need heat. Instead, they need to buy their kids clothes for school, or a backpack. That is why our goal here at Lighthouse is help them have their basic needs met." Increasingly, Lighthouse is seeing the working poor, in addition to those living at the poverty level, coming from throughout Oakland County, including from more affluent communities, who are accessing their food pantries "because they've elected to purchase school supplies, because they know Lighthouse will be able to close the gap with their discretionary income." McLachlan noted that there are items that are very expensive that cannot be purchased at the store with food stamps, such as personal items and diapers. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of clients Lighthouse served from various communities in both south and western Oakland County grew by 200 or more each year, with new clients coming from Farmington, Farmington Hills, Novi, Clawson, Ferndale, Berkley, Hazel Park, Royal Oak, Southfield, Madison Heights, Franklin, Wixom and Walled Lake among the fastest growing populations of clients in need. As a matter of fact, despite Pontiac's continued center for low income and poverty, the growth of poverty in other areas of Oakland County dramatically outpaced the rate of the growth of poverty in Pontiac between 2005 and 2012. In Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, churches are quietly opening their doors to offer food and other services to residents in need. Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church on N. Adams, Ladies of Charity on Opdyke, and St. Elizabeth Briarbank Home on Woodward, all in Bloomfield Hills, provide services in coordination with Gleaners. "Food banks are giving away more and more food every year," said Gilda Jacobs. "There is still a huge need for basics." Even with the September 2016 census bureau report of the increase in household income and the decline in poverty levels, a greater signifier of economic wellbeing is the measure of economic need that comes from comparing family income and the real cost of living. An accurate indicator is the number of school children needing free or reduced school lunches in a community. The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. To apply and qualify for free or reduced lunches, parents multiply the federal income poverty guidelines by family size by 1.3 and 1.85, respectively, based on monthly income. "School lunches have increased in Michigan. In our state, over half the kinds are on free or reduced lunches," said Jacobs of the Michigan League for Public Policy. "That is proof we have more work to be done." For the 2015-2016 school year, Birmingham Public Schools, which covers areas of Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Franklin, Southfield, West Bloomfield, and Troy, out of a total enrollment of 8,093 students, there were 490 students, or 5.32 percent, receiving free lunches, and 83, or .9 percent, who received reduced school lunches. In Bloomfield Hills, out of a total student population of 5,154, they had 377 students receive free lunches, and 68 receive reduced school lunches, according to Shira Good, director of communications and community relations for Bloomfield Hills Schools. The district serves Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, portions of Pontiac and West Bloomfield. Rochester Community Schools, which serves students in Rochester, the majority of Rochester Hills and Oakland Township, and portions of Orion Township, Auburn Hills, Shelby Township and Washington Township, had 1,440 students in the 2015-2016 school year qualify for free lunches, and 297 students qualify for reduced lunches, out of a total student population of 14,764 students. "The United States has the second highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized countries despite having the largest economy in the world. A child in the United States has a 1 in 5 chance of being poor and the younger she is the poorer she is likely to be," noted the Children's Defense Fund. "Growing up poor has lifelong negative consequences, decreasing the likelihood of graduating from high school and increasing the likelihood of becoming a poor adult, suffering from poor health, and becoming involved in the criminal justice system." The Children's Defense Fund asserted that the best anti-poverty strategy is to make sure that parents and caregivers who are fit to work are able to find jobs that pay them enough to support a family. "A job does not necessarily guarantee a livable income; nearly one in three poor children lives in a family with an adult who works full-time year round. No family with a parent working full-time should live in poverty," is one of the tenets of the fund, first by increasing the value of the minimum wage. The second is by improving the country's safety net programs and refundable tax credits, which could lift 8.2 million children from poverty. "Housing subsidies only reach one in four needy families with children," they state. "While the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) reaches a large percent of poor families, millions of children are hungry because benefits are not enough to ensure adequate nutrition." Feeding America, which said it provides food assistance to an estimated 46.5 million people annually, which includes 12 million children and seven million seniors, said that 61 percent of food-insecure households participated in at least one of the three major federal food assistance programs, whether the National School Lunch Program, SNAP, or supplemental nutritional program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in the previous month. Of their client households, 72 percent live at or bellow the federal poverty level. For as many individuals who were in poverty, Feeding America pointed out that in 2014, another 48.1 million lived in food insecure households, which included 15.3 million children. "Food insecurity exists in every county in the U.S.," with the lowest at 4 percent in North Dakota, and the highest at 33 percent in Mississippi. Michigan ranked 46th, with Mississippi and Nevada tied at 49. Michigan League for Public Policy's Jacobs asserted that part of the problem is "It has not been a huge priority of the legislature to improve the lives of the people. We have harsher, more punitive measures, so it is important for people to talk to the legislature about things like food assistance. It is important to have a safety net so people can get on their feet. We have to have decent salaries so people don't have to rely on public assistance. It's important that we don't put up more barriers, so people can be more productive citizens – and taxpayers," she emphasized. "We think all kids count – no matter where they live, their racial or ethnic background, or their family income – but do the elected officials charged with supporting their wellbeing share that priority?" asked Alicia Guevara Warren, project director of Kids Count in Michigan. "If legislators are truly concerned with child wellbeing, they have to address income and racial disparities, and invest in proven two-generation strategies that help kids by helping their parents." Kids Count recommends policymakers support parents and their children by investing in communities to create safe neighborhoods, clean air and water, quality schools, and adequate police and fire services; strengthen policies that support work, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, earned paid sick leave, and other workforce opportunities; creating access to affordable child care; helping to prevent child abuse and neglect, and improving mental help and substance abuse for parents; and adequately funding public schools, particularly in high-need areas. The need for improved and better targeted education is a particular issue to Data Driven Detroit's Metzger. "In Pontiac, Auburn Hills, and pockets of other communities, people don't have the education and the skills to weather the job losses," he said. "In Oakland County, the good news is that job loss has turned around, but you need certain skills, and those without those skills are stuck in low-income, low-skill jobs, working part-time, or working retail, with no benefits, no paid time off. There's a large population that is stuck. You see the numbers going up also in Southfield and Madison Heights, where there is a large refugee population." He pointed out that Hazel Park, with a 2014 poverty level at 28.7 percent, double its 2000 number of 12.4 percent; or Oak Park, where 18.6 percent is at the poverty level, also double its 2000 level of 9.4 percent; Ferndale, with 17 percent at the poverty level, versus 8.2 percent in 2000; or the 15.2 percent level in Southfield, which had a 7.4 poverty level in 2000, "had large African American populations moving into them during the last several years. It tends to be a much poorer, less educated population," Metzger said, noting that many sought the opportunity to flee Detroit with its poor educational system, bringing with them endemic problems. "Educationally, many of them are graduating, but with much lower test scores. Obviously, that's a sign they're going to have future problems," he said. "You have a lot of issues, a lot of gaps, a lot of students who are economically disadvantaged by race and other issues. To give them the opportunities, you have to help them to go back to school, to educate them, but also to give them the tools so they can move on to college and not need remedial courses, or to move on to careers where they can succeed, like plumbers or other needed professions. Who doesn't need a plumber?"

PayPal ButtonPayPal Button

DOWNTOWN: Unrivaled journalism worthy of reader support

A decade ago we assembled a small but experienced and passionate group of publishing professionals all committed to producing an independent newsmagazine befitting the Birmingham/Bloomfield area that, as we like to say, has long defined the best of Oakland County. 


We provide a quality monthly news product unrivaled in this part of Oakland. For most in the local communities, we have arrived at your doorstep at no charge and we would like to keep it that way, so your support is important.


Check out our publisher’s letter to the community here.

Sign Up
Register for Downtown's newsletters to receive updates on the latest news and much more!

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page