Flint, MI—An update on Genesee County’s economic vitality plan shows that while some progress has been made in metrics like average wage and family poverty rate over the past few years, there’s still a long way to go before the county can be considered one of the most prosperous in Michigan.

In 2020, Genesee County officials set a goal of becoming a “top-five community in Michigan” based on jobs, talent, livability and equity through its “Forward Together” plan, which measures economic prosperity through certain criteria like educational achievement and net in-migration as well as provides strategies for improvement.

The Flint & Genesee Group, which collaborated with city of Flint and Genesee County officials to create the plan in 2019, gave an update on the county’s progress toward that goal to Flint City Council.

“Why top five?” said Kristina Johnston, Chief Operating Officer at the Flint & Genesee Group during her Sept. 26, 2022, council presentation. “In the state of Michigan, there are 83 counties. Genesee County is the fifth most populous.”

Johnston said if residents wanted “to live into that top five,” a plan was needed to both track economic indicators for Genesee County’s prosperity and contextualize those numbers within the rest of the state. Thus, the “Forward Together” plan was launched in July 2020.

The plan uses five metrics to measure the county’s economic prosperity: average wage, net in-migration, educational achievement—defined as percent of postsecondary degree-holding residents over 25 years old, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate, and family poverty rate. 

A slide from the Flint & Genesee Group’s presentation to Flint City Council on Sept. 26, 2022. The presentation was to update council on Genesee County’s progress toward being a “top-five” community in the state in terms of jobs, talent, livability and equity from its “Future Forward” plan. (Courtesy Flint & Genesee Group)

According to Johnston’s presentation, the county’s average wage per week increased by nearly $80 between 2019 and 2021, educational attainment went up one percent from 2018 to 2020, GDP growth rate went from 0.88 percent to 1.17 percent for roughly the same period, and the family poverty rate dropped from 15 to 12 percent between 2017 to 2021. 

“You’ll see some different years,” Johnston said in explanation of the mismatched data sets. “We get the most current information that we can but not every data set is equal.”

Despite those numbers going up, however, Johnston’s presentation showed Genesee County’s ranking went down in all but GDP growth rate, where it jumped from 49th to 20th among the state’s 83 counties.

“I think that’s one of the things that plan does differently than other plans I’ve seen, which is it gives you context,” Johnston told Flint Beat in a separate interview. 

Johnston said the county’s numbers may look good on the surface, but stopping there can lead to “complacency.” 

“Other places maybe have put policies in place or invested in certain things that have helped them—or have a context that’s different than ours—that help them grow faster,” Johnston said. “‘Top-five’ means you have to keep up with that growth rate and not just be looking at your pure numbers, but comparing yourself to the rest of the state.”

What that comparison shows is that the county has a ways to go to meet its top-five dreams: Genesee is ranked 24th (down from 22nd) in average wage, 35th (down from 29th) in educational achievement, and 81st (down from 78th) in family poverty rate according to Johnston’s update.

“As much as some of the data can sound a little depressing, there are some real points of optimism,” Johnston added. 

She spoke of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funding and the resulting unprecedented state-level investments in infrastructure and education.

She also said the plan helps to provide the county with clear target areas for those investments: getting people to move to Flint and Genesee County and supporting their postsecondary education.

“We’ve got to focus on those two big things,” Johnston said. “Because if you have more people and they’re higher educated, you’re going to pull people’s wages up. You’re going to have people being pulled out of poverty. They really can influence the rest of those metrics.”

Megan Earley’s pre-school class play games together in small groups to help learn their alphabet at the Pumpkin Patch Early Childhood Preschool in the Genesee Charter Township. The Pumpkin Patch is part of the Great Start Readiness Program that provides free schooling for 4 year olds in Michigan. March 4, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

The plan also includes a “community scorecard” with a few more ways to measure whether progress is being shared equitably across county communities. 

In those results, Johnston said, she found one more big consideration.

“What it did for me is reinforced that we don’t need a whole lot of extra programs and ideas,” Johnston said. “We need to really put resources behind the ones that work.”

She mentioned the many workforce development programs, soft skills training routes, and credentialing options available in Flint and the surrounding county. She also talked about early childhood education programs that could boost the county’s falling third-grade reading proficiency and the Flint Promise program to increase postsecondary degree attainment.

“​​We have so many things in place, but it’s a matter of getting them to the people where they are and to the people that need them most,” Johnston said, adding that she viewed this updated data as an opportunity to look inwardly at where gaps and inequities exist in program rollouts.

The “Community Scorecard” slide from the Flint & Genesee Group’s presentation to Flint City Council on Sept. 26, 2022. The presentation was to update council on Genesee County’s progress toward being a “top-five” community in the state in terms of jobs, talent, livability and equity from its “Future Forward” plan. (Courtesy Flint & Genesee Group)

“Because that, to me, was the most revealing data point of all of this,” Johnston said. “Not everybody is seeing and feeling progress the same way.”

The Future Forward plan outlines multiple high-level approaches to improving the county’s ranking in each metric, including investment, tourism, and community-level strategies.

“No one organization can do it all,” Johnston said in response to what needs to happen next, which is why she presents the numbers as a whole instead of breaking them out by individual city, village, or township.

“‘Health of one is related to the health of all’ is a message that I hope we can continue to spread with this data,” Johnston concluded.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....