Food assistance jumps 56 percent in Ottawa County

Food assistance jumps 56 percent in Ottawa County (Story on county with the largest percentage increase in Food Assistance as reported in the Economic Security Bulletin)  — Holland Sentinel

More in need of food assistance

More in need of food assistance (Look at the latest numbers in the League’s Economic Security Bulletin)  — WLNS-TV

Getting health reform right the first time

Policymakers in Michigan will soon have key decisions to make as health reform implementation progresses. Will they choose to do it right the first time, or follow their current strategy of remedial public policy?

When programs require a financial investment, policymakers say the state has no money to invest, and yet there are always funds to cover remedial services. Will the current approach of cutting programs in the name of fiscal restraint only to fund those necessary services in higher-cost settings be their guide?

For example, children are eligible for Medicaid or MIChild, but are not aware or enrolled because outreach funds and efforts have been eliminated. They are then treated in hospital emergency rooms instead of doctors offices. Or, Medicaid services are eliminated “to save funds” and untreated illnesses become life-threatening, resulting in intensive care stays that could have been avoided.

Early childhood and education programs have been cut or weakened through continued state disinvestment. A Casey Foundation report ranks Michigan ranks 34th among the 50 states in children who are proficient at reading by the end of third grade. Colleges then spend considerable time and cost on remedial education to correct the deficiencies.

Community mental health services are inadequately funded and were severely cut in this budget year. This means services are not provided until a crisis occurs, resulting at times with a person entering the corrections system. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy recently called for more aggressive mental health, preschool and drug treatment funding.

Federal health care reform presents the opportunity to make dramatic changes in the health care system and the way it’s delivered, defined and funded. A key question is: Will policymakers take advantage of these opportunities — pass needed legislation, and provide the necessary funding and staff for a successful implementation, or will they try to “do more with less” and skate by on the cheap?

If policymakers choose the short-sighted approach in the name of fiscal restraint  then we cannot expect to see the full potential of improvements to the current systems and health outcomes. It is critical that they acknowledge the need for additional resources and supporting public policy so that health reform implementation can be done right the first time.

We can pay now, we can pay later – or both. Will health care reform be more of the same, or will it be implemented right the first time?

— Jan Hudson

Dog days of the budget cycle

Webster defines “dog days” as a period of stagnation and inactivity.  It’s the day after the start of the summer, and in Lansing it already feels like the dog days of summer.

Michigan is 100 days away from the new fiscal year, and we don’t appear close to having a budget. There is no agreement as to how to close the gap between revenues and expenditures; targets haven’t been set, and the whole process appears stalled.  Meanwhile, we creep closer to campaign season when there’s little likelihood of rational policymaking.

Monday’s Spotlight on Poverty, a national online source for news, ideas and action, focuses on the importance of federal aid and a balanced approach to state revenues, rather than cuts, as the immediate short-term solution to state budget problems. The article highlights the difficulty that many families and individuals have in making ends meet, and cites the harm of continued state budget cuts.

In Michigan this is particularly true.  While we moved last month to No. 2 in the nation’s unemployment rate, we still have a long road ahead of us.  That journey could be made easier if policymakers would get over their fear of the “t” word and tackle the important job of overhauling our tax structure.  Wishing doesn’t make it so; action is needed now rather than later.

— Sharon Parks

Ouch! Survey results pinch

A recently released survey of local Michigan officials has a depressing finding: Only 1 percent of local officials think the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has helped improve local economic conditions “very much.” Two out of every three say it has not helped at all to date, and more than half predict it won’t help at all over the long term.

Ouch! That’s a blow for those of us who have been advocating for extending vital features of the ARRA. (Those include extending the enhanced federal Medicaid match that will offer more than $500 million for next year’s state budget, Earned Income Tax Credit expansions, Child Tax Credit to benefit working poor families of nearly 600,000 kids in Michigan and 99 weeks of unemployment benefits for the state’s long-term unemployed.)

ARRA has poured critical dollars into our state at a critical time. Few of those dollars, however, went directly to local governments, a fact pointed out by the Michigan Municipal League in a well-publicized letter to Vice President Biden last year. Local governments struggle with the double whammy of sharply reduced revenue sharing from the state and declining property values, causing layoffs of public safety workers and other hardships.

But the Recovery Act money has flowed to many people in the communities: the unemployed, households on food assistance, those on Social Security and taxpayers. It is credited with saving an estimated 12,000 jobs in Michigan, most of them in education.  That help doesn’t go into a black hole — those are dollars that are quickly circulated in local economies.

The survey of more than 1,000 local officials was completed last fall. Perhaps, with time, more will see the benefit to their communities in projects such as weatherization.

Without doubt, the ARRA has paid off for local communities, even as tough times continue. What’s hard to imagine is how much worse it would be without the Recovery Act.

Michigan needed the Recovery Act in 2009. It needs it now – it’s important that Congress votes to extend the enhanced Medicaid match, EITC expansions, unemployment benefits and the Child Tax credit.

— Judy Putnam

Tax break for working poor

In a Factually Speaking post on Feb. 22, I wrote about the federal Child Tax Credit and how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act lowered the minimum household income level from $10,000 to $3,000.

This change has helped many very poor families in Michigan qualify for the credit, and Congress must make the change permanent. Without such legislation, the minimum eligibility level for the Child Tax Credit will jump to $12,850 next year.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has just released a paper showing that failure to make the change permanent will result in a loss or reduction of the credit for the families of 477,000 urban and suburban children in Michigan and 106,000 rural children.

The reduction for some families comes about because the tax credit is phased in at the low end of the income eligibility scale. Currently, families with two children with household earnings between $3,000 and $16,333 receive a partial credit based on their income. Families who earn more than $16,333 (but less than $70,000 if they are one-parent families and $140,000 if they are two-parent) receive the maximum credit of $1,000 per child.

If Congress does not make the $3,000 threshold permanent, families earning less than $12,850 won’t receive a Child Tax Credit at all, and families earning less than $26,183 won’t receive the full $1,000 amount.

As with the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, much of the money families get back for the federal Child Tax Credit gets spent in their own communities, helping local businesses and stimulating the economy. That is why this tax credit expansion was passed as part of the Recovery Act.

If you feel comfortable calling your representatives in Congress, you might want to pick up the phone and ask them to stand up for low-income working families in our state. You can find your representative’s office phone number here.

— Peter Ruark

Real fiscal hang-up nailed

Talk about spot on. Today’s Detroit Free Press editorials zero right in on the real hang-up in resolving Michigan’s ongoing fiscal problems. Too many current and wannabe lawmakers think the answer to Michigan’s problems is more tax cuts, and no tax increases.

This approach ignores the fact that tax cuts actually got us into this mess. Michigan cut taxes aggressively throughout the 1990s and enacted multi-year tax cuts in 1999. Lawmakers foolishly continued these tax cuts, even as Michigan and the rest of the country slid into a recession.

The implosion of the auto industry and the 2008 recession only compounded our problems. An improved economy, which is not around the corner, won’t entirely solve our revenue problems, as the Free Press points out. The League’s graduated income tax (pdf) plan is cited.

If Michigan is ever to have a revenue base (pdf) that can restore viability to this state, it must look to the growth sectors of the economy and to those whose incomes are growing the fastest.

Tax cuts have not pulled Michigan out of this mess, nor will they in the future. Those who want to lead Michigan in the future, yet take a “no tax” pledge, would lead Michigan nowhere.

— Sharon Parks

Urgent! Improving literacy in Michigan

Last week over 50 literacy experts from throughout the state gathered at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center to brainstorm critical goals for a comprehensive literacy plan for Michigan.

The plan, which will be submitted for funding from the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program, must address the needs of children from birth through grade 12. Workgroups focused on the literacy needs of multiple populations, including English Language Learners and alternative education students, as well as issues in teacher preparation, certification and ongoing professional development.

This effort comes at an opportune moment as the need for a more highly skilled and literate workforce is becoming urgent in order to attract better employment opportunities to the state.

The literacy level of Michigan students is a concern as reflected in the recent report by the national KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report  sounded an alarm at the relatively small share—less than one-third of the nation’s fourth-graders—who could demonstrate proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test. Most children who cannot read by the end of the third grade continue to struggle with reading as high schoolers. They are also more likely to be retained in a grade or drop out.

Although Michigan’s test results were not significantly different from the national average, they earned the state a ranking of 34th among the 50 states. Massachusetts, which ranked first among the states, had almost half of its students performing at or above proficient.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to develop and implement a state literacy plan to create cohesive policies to help all students achieve proficiency in reading, writing, and oral language. It’s worth noting that the very first literacy goal defined in the Massachusetts plan is to prevent the literacy achievement gap from starting. To that end a number of Early Education and Care initiatives have been launched for children, ages 0-5.

Michigan policymakers should take note of this emphasis on prevention and the importance of investing in young children and their families. Unfortunately they are dismantling such programs in their “cuts only” approach to the state budget.

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell