The Rapidian

What is the current standard of living in Grand Rapids?

While Grand Rapids experiences a new rebirth, what is the actual standard of living for average Grand Rapidians?

While there have been many exciting developments in Grand Rapids in terms of culture and business, and the city is now on the list of destination cities and best places to raise a family, it's worth asking whether the average family's standard of living has been doing meanwhile and whether it has recovered at all from the decade-long Michigan recession.  

In 2000 the unemployment rate for the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metro area was slightly less than 3%. Following September 11, 2001, the unemployment rate rose sharply reaching 7.6% in summer of 2003, then falling and leveling off to about 6% in 2008 before the economy nearly collapsed and unemployment surged again, reaching 11.6% in early 2010 and then falling. In October of 2013, unemployment in Grand Rapids-Wyoming was 6.5%.

Likewise, the poverty rate increased dramatically. The census data revealed that since 2000 poverty was up in the city, in the outlying suburbs, among Grand Rapids children - many more people have far fewer resources and are much more vulnerable to the kinds of economic setbacks most people can expect from time to time.

Now, obviously unemployment, poverty and the general standard of living of a community are not going to match exactly. Employment can vaccilate sharply due to temporary problems. Poverty is an ever present reality. Some part of every population will always make less money. The standard of living changes over time due to a number of factors - inflation, cost of living, quality and availability of housing, healthcare and education, and the poverty rate, as well as political, religious, economic, environmental, safety, health and climate considerations. A community can weather a temporary plant shutdown, drought or an outbreak of disease without a large number of its members dropping into a lower socioeconomic rung. A prolonged downturn, however, can make a profound difference on its overall wellbeing, particularly if that community is highly dependent on one industry. In Michigan, I think we're all familiar with how many unrelated industries (along with their workers) took a hit when the auto industry imploded.  

In the Mlive article, "Jobs make a comeback in West Michigan, paychecks not so much," Jim Harger documents the decline in the local standard of living, pointing out that while the new job growth in West Michigan looks good compared to many areas of the state, and any number of previous years, this does not mean that the income of our workers (or the income + benefits combination so many families depend upon) has kept up with inflation. Many Michigan workers are equally familiar with the loss of full-time work, replaced with lower paying part-time jobs. For too many people involuntary part-time work is the new normal, and plenty of college graduates wonder if they will ever have a career.

So how has the standard of living changed for the "average family" here? That gets lost in all of the statistics. We can track the number of foreclosures and families on foodstamps, but how many people are stuck in jobs they hate because they doubt they could find better - or even different - ones or because they are dependent on whatever benefits they still have? How many workers have benefits that are now catastrophic instead of comprehensive? How many young people have put off getting married, buying a house, or having a baby because financially they cannot support themselves on what they can make and pay their student loans? How many would-be retirees have put that goal off indefinitely? How many middle aged adults have moved in with their parents? How many families are living in friends' or relatives' basements? The living wage calculation for Kent County, Michigan calculates "the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time." For one adult with one child that living wage is $18.42 per hour. How doable is that for most workers in Grand Rapids?  

My family has seen a considerable decline in standard of living in the last 10 years. We went from being a DINK couple to a one-income family with a child (by choice), and saw our benefits slide from full coverage (with no deductibles, even for prescriptions) to high deductible insurance through my husband's employer. We are now down to one part-time income and only catastrophic health insurance. We gave modest, mostly handmade presents at Christmas, and we can't afford to go on vacation or get sick.  When the Grand Rapids Press did an article about prices rising for the city's pay-to-tip garbage collection due to lesser revenue than expected received, part of me wondered if the reason for emptier dumpsters wasn't just more recycling but less consuming.  When you go from buying your clothes new to buying your clothes used or on consignment to not buying clothes or buying soup at the store to making soup to eating soup nearly every day, there's considerably less packaging going in the bin. How many other Grand Rapids families have seen changes like this without showing up on official statistics yet?  I would love to hear more families' stories about whether things have gotten worse (or better!) for them over time living here.

Statistics and news stories only tell a small part of the overall picture of life in West Michigan.


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