A fast-growing population. A strong economy. A booming housing market. The Grand Rapids area has become a highly desirable destination for many people, recognized for its economic opportunities and quality of life. However, the opportunities – and the prosperity they offer – are not evenly or equitably available.
Inequities that have persisted through generations have made it the norm in Kent County that People of Color earn significantly less money and have far less in assets than the median household in the community. Broken down by race and ethnicity, the median income of Black families is 52 cents for every dollar earned by White families, and Hispanic/Latinx families earn about 60 cents on the dollar.
According to the ALICE in Michigan Report from the Michigan Association of United Ways, 35 percent of all households in Kent County struggle to pay for their basic needs. That includes 10 percent who live below poverty and another 25 percent who are ALICE, which stands for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed – workers whose jobs don’t pay enough to cover the cost of housing, food, child care, health care, and other necessities. The share of people living below the ALICE threshold is far greater for Black households (62 percent) and Hispanic households (54 percent) than for the overall county population.
Kelsey Perdue, Kids Count Project Director with the Michigan League for Public Policy and a member of the First Steps Kent Board of Directors, says that is the legacy of policies – many, especially historically, intentionally racist and some unintentionally so – that created barriers for people of color.
“If you look at our nation’s history, you would expect to see disparities. Our kids are not starting from the same place. A level playing field does not exist. That is rooted in the reality that all families don’t have access to the same opportunities, the same resources, and the same strong institutions.”
Among the institutions Perdue points to are jobs that pay a living wage, quality health care, well-funded schools, and trusted doctors and educators who understand how to work with and relate to diverse populations.
“People have to understand that this is a generational issue, and for Black and Brown families, this has been a very difficult hurdle to get over,” explains Dr. Juan Olivarez, who recently retired as the Distinguished Scholar in Residence for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Grand Valley State University and serves on the board of directors of both First Steps Kent and KConnect.
In addition to the institutions listed above Olivarez says home ownership is critical to helping families create and pass down wealth. However, the gap between the percentage of White and Black families who own homes continues to get wider.
Both Olivarez and Perdue believe investing in parents – their economic security, housing, health, and general wellbeing – is an investment in young children.
“We have to start early with education. It starts prenatally because mothers have to be healthy to have healthy babies,” says Olivarez. “Healthy babies then produce a better chance of being able to take in their environment and develop the senses and skills needed to be a learned person.”
Perdue says early childhood programs such as quality child care, preschool, and home visiting – which provides support, education, and information to new parents – are good public policy. To sustain the benefits, the investments and support need to continue as children grow into teenagers and young adults.
“While programs alone are not a silver bullet solution, we desperately need them to support families and kids day-to-day as they grow, but without losing sight of improving our larger systems so that they serve all equitably – no matter one’s starting place. Our policy and budget work is focused on supporting the programs and services that families need in the here and now while we work on broader policy choices that eliminate poverty and disparities.”
Improving our systems involves substantial changes and input. Olivarez is calling on community members of all races, ethnicities, neighborhoods, and sectors to find their role in that work. As his final project in his role at Grand Valley State, he shepherded a 20-minute documentary focused on “inclusive growth” that features 30 community leaders with diverse backgrounds, experience, and expertise. Inclusive growth means more people share in the rewards of the community’s economic growth. Getting there requires intentional investment in neighborhood-level needs, talent development, and personal financial security and prioritizing health, education, safety, and housing alongside job creation.
“It is all interconnected and interdependent,” Olivarez explained. “We have to realize that we all have to be moving in the direction of making sure everyone has access to prosperity and opportunities are there for them.
“It’s a heavy lift. I think today we have an understanding that we’re not rowing in the same direction, and we have to be more deliberate about doing that.”
Without strong community commitment and bold, deliberate action, the economic gaps that have become normal in Kent County will likely persist for future generations. That normal has never been enough and cannot continue to be our community’s normal moving forward.
View the inclusive growth documentary here and learn more about how you can get involved in building a more equitable community and economy in Kent County.
Click here to learn more about the state of children in our community and policies that support families’ economic security in the Kids Count in Michigan 2021 Data Book.
Read the ALICE in Michigan report and data specific to Kent County here.