It was buried on page four of yesterday's Detroit Free Press, but a recent report based on census data suggests that Oakland County, one of America's most affluent county's has seen a 77% increase in poverty.
Living in the Metro-Detroit area, I know that the city of Detroit faces the extremes of poverty. The same is true of former industrial centers like Flint and Saginaw,but could it happen in the midst of what so many perceive to be affluent suburbs? It s true that Pontiac, another former industrial hub, has been hit hard by urban poverty, but what needs to be heard here is that poverty in Oakland County isn't just centered in Pontiac -- it's spread across the county (even in a city like Troy). In my mind a report like that is front page news!
The story in the Free Press highlights the story of someone you wouldn't have expected to end up in poverty. In the story we learn about Bridget Agnello -- divorced, mother of one young son, college educated, former marketing director for fortune 500 companies. She once made $74,000 a year, but lost that job and has not been able to find a replacement. She's now a resident of a low-income housing project (for two years) after losing her home in Ferndale, MI.
The economy has been improving and jobs are coming back, but not for everyone. And the jobs emerging often are at a level below what was once offered. Moving from a Fortune 500 marketing director position to a sale's clerk position at a department store will result in a very different standard of living.
As the President of a faith-rooted community organizing effort that is focusing on suburban issues, I find this report to be on the one hand disturbing, but also a reminder that there is work to do in the suburbs. We are focusing at the Metro Coalition of Congregations on issues like Regional Transit (transit is key to helping low-income people, seniors, and young adults get to available jobs) and health care (the Medicare expansion is key to helping low-income workers have access to affordable health care). The gun violence initiative focuses in on an issue that we often don't think is important in the suburbs, but could be. As for human trafficking -- how many people find themselves lured into trafficking situation due to the despair created by poverty.
Heeding this report doesn't take away from the urban centered poverty that affects Detroit and Flint, but it is important to open our eyes to the situation faced by our neighbors -- many close at hand, living on the edge. It is important to remember that we are in this together -- urban, suburban, and rural.
As we consider the situations those around us face, we need to take into consideration that the safety nets are being stretched to the limit, even as funding gets cut back (food stamps, etc.). Ironically, this is occurring at the very same time that poverty is touching what was once considered the home of affluence. Perhaps that is no longer true.
Heeding the call to love one' neighbor and care for the stranger -- biblical imperatives -- don't require long drives to faraway places. We just need to look around. And then, we need to act. I have chosen to participate in this work by helping found the MCC -- but there are many ways we can engage in this kind of justice work.