Hardships hit children

The Michigan numbers in the just released national KIDS COUNT report reflected  a 36 percent increase in child poverty in the state between 2000 and 2008 and a ranking of 44th (with 1 being the best) for the relatively large percentage of children living in families where no parent has a full-time year-round job. In response to this report, Michigan citizens and legislators might want to review the findings in a recent study about the impact of hard times on children.

Children in families suffering from multiple hardships, defined as inadequate food, inconsistent access to utility service, and unstable housing, sustain long-term harm to their health and well-being, according to the report Healthy Families in Hard Times. Children’s HealthWatch found that each of these hardships elevate the risk of poor health, hospitalizations, iron deficiency anemia, and developmental delay among children in these families. Children with severe hardship were at more than double the risk of developmental delay compared with children in families with none of these material hardships.

The ten-year study found that one-third of low-income families experienced no hardship while the majority (57%) suffered from moderate hardship, and 6 percent sustained severe hardship. Housing insecurity was the most pervasive—affecting roughly two of five low-income families compared with 27 percent with energy insecurity and one in five with food insecurity.

The impact of these hardships is real and profound for the affected children. Children who experience food insecurity were more likely to need special education services, mental health treatment, and remediation for low academic performance.

While the best solution for family economic security is a good job that can provide the income to meet material needs, roughly one-third of the state’s children lived in a family where no parent had a full-time year-round job in 2008. Children cannot wait for the economic engine; they are already on the road.

Until the economy rebounds, many families must depend on public programs to get through the current recession. The researchers found that many eligible families did not participate in available programs, but the health and development outcomes for children in those needy families who did were much better than for those who did not.

So in these hard times instead of cutting programs, curtailing outreach, and limiting access to programs the better approach might be to expand outreach, coordination, and access to programs that mitigate material hardship so that children who have been born during these hard times will have a chance to be ready for the new economy when it arrives.

It’s only a start

We can celebrate. Yesterday, the U.S. Senate voted to override a filibuster blocking a bill that continues making Emergency Unemployment Compensation available for workers who have exhausted their Unemployment Insurance (UI) but have still not found a job. This vote will prevent more than 130,000 Michigan workers from prematurely losing their UI benefits.

However, the vote does not restore the Federal Additional Compensation (FAC) that added $25 per week to the UI benefits for Michigan workers. This additional money has helped unemployed families fill their gas tanks, pay their utilities and buy household necessities, and by the end of May 2010 added $669 million to Michigan’s economy.

Michigan’s average UI benefit during this past April would normally have been $301 per week, but with the FAC it was $326 per week. The maximum weekly benefit in Michigan has been $387 as opposed to $362 without the additional compensation.

The vote also does not include the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) subsidy for health insurance for laid-off workers. This assistance helped roughly 83,000 Michigan households between the beginning of 2009 and the first few months of 2010.

Without the subsidy, many unemployed workers will see steep increases in their health insurance costs.

Two sources of federal aid to states to help with public assistance costs have also not been extended yet. One is the enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, which provided additional match dollars to help states pay for their Medicaid programs. The other is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund, which provides federal dollars to temporarily subsidize jobs for people who are leaving (or are in danger of having to seek) public cash assistance. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, this program could create nearly 200,000 jobs nationally by September, at which time it will expire at the end of September if Congress does not renew its funding.

So, we can uncork the champagne and celebrate the fact that Congress finally voted to allow long-term unemployed workers to continue receiving unemployment insurance benefits. But Congress still needs to continue the COBRA subsidy, the enhanced federal Medicaid match, and the job creation subsidies. And it would be nice if our unemployed workers could have that extra $25 per week of help as they look for other employment.

— Peter Ruark

Michigan Is Ours!

The League of Women Voters of Michigan recently completed a project called Michigan Is Ours! that documents the loss of state dollars to fund public services over the last 10 years, in part due to tax policies that reduce taxes. The group is advocating for a reversal of this trend.

In its background information, the League of Women Voters cites the negative consequences  to state services  because of the dramatic decline in state revenues, including:

  • the reduction in state workforce– 18 percent, over the last seven years.
  • the dramatic decline in public safety funding– $3 billion, since September 11, 2001.
  • the astonishing decline in state investments in higher education.

The group’s members believe that the “T” word is not a terrible word, but is a necessary word if we are going to have quality public services.  They further believe voters are concerned about such services as education, public safety, social services, health care, employment services, safe food and water, parks, libraries, and roads, and are willing to pay for them.

As part of this project, the League of Women Voters has created a series of postcards on specific public services to be sent to legislators. These postcards have a simple message: they affirm the voter’s support for a specific public service and further affirm the voter’s willingness to pay more taxes to support it.  They encourage legislators to pursue tax changes to increase state revenues to support these essential public services.

The Michigan League for Human Services also advocates for tax policy changes to increase state revenues to support key public services.  Numerous options are available to policymakers.  Please see our Facts Matter report for more information.

If you think a change in direction is in order, and support public services, including adequate taxes to pay for them, let your legislators know.  You can contact Jackie Benson at the Michigan League for Human Services, Jbenson@michleagueforhumansvs.org, for a supply of postcards.

Thanks to the League of Women Voters for creating such an easy way for us to communicate our priorities and willingness to pay more taxes for public services to our legislators.

— Jan Hudson

Penny Swan on being jobless

Penny Swan, 51, is an out-of-work respiratory technician in Hillsdale.

She’s one of the 104,000 jobless Michigan workers who, as of Saturday, will have lost their unemployment benefits this month after Congress failed to pass an extension. Swan found out she was eligible for 20 more weeks of unemployment, then a week later she got a letter saying it wouldn’t happen. Her benefits ended two weeks ago.

“It’s just wrong,’’ says Swan, who has been looking for work for 18 months. “It’s not only affecting me, it’s affecting everyone I pay bills to.’’

Swan says she hears the talk show chatter about people who say the jobless need to just get off their couches and get to work. It’s hard for her to hear because she spends long days sending out resumes and looking for work. She wants to work but is running into brick walls.

“I’m not getting any calls back. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Before this, I’ve never been out of work for more than two weeks,’’ she says.

Swan’s life has been caught up in the national debate about debt vs. economic stimulus. Some in Washington have suddenly discovered the national debt. While it is a concern (See a recent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities paper on the recession and debt), failing to stimulate the economy, many economists fear, will lead to a double-dip recession. In other words, there’s a time to address the deficit, but the time is not now if we want our economy to return to health.

Beyond making it difficult to make ends meet for thousands of jobless workers in Michigan, the loss of unemployment benefits removes more than $200 million a month from Michigan’s economy, the National Employment Law Project estimates.

Michigan’s congressional delegation, for the most part, has been supportive of extending unemployment benefits. Only Reps. Candice Miller and Dave Camp voted ‘no.’ Rep. Peter Hoekstra was attending a fund-raiser for his gubernatorial campaign and didn’t vote.

Michigan has led the country in unemployment  for 49 out of  the last 50 months. It’s important that these benefits be reinstated quickly. A vote in the U.S. Senate could do that as early as next week. Please read the League’s statement issued today urging a fast vote.

Swan says many in Washington are out of touch with the reality she faces. The health care company she worked for, providing in-home assistance for respiratory patients, has cut its workforce from 25 to seven. Still, Swan says she’s lucky. She has an understanding landlord and she is considering moving in with a sister a few miles away. She is single, with just two cats to care for.

“I can’t imagine the pressure on someone who has a family to support,’’ she said.

Even with unemployment benefits, Swan says she’s watched her pennies. A crown on a tooth fell off more than a year ago, and she hasn’t had it replaced, instead using a temporary dental patch to fill the hole.

“I can’t go to a dentist,’’ she said. “I don’t have any choice.’’

— Judy Putnam

How to achieve health equity

A Path Toward Health Equity, a recently released report from Community Catalyst, contains recommendations on how to strengthen community-based work to reduce health disparities.  The report focused on six states, one of which was Michigan.

I had the opportunity to share my perspective on health equity work in Michigan, as the report was being developed.  Although it focuses primarily on specific recommendations about how to more effectively address health disparities, the report also contains some important information about the status of health disparities in our state.

The numbers serve as yet another reminder of the disparities that do exist.  Overall, 13 percent of those in Michigan are uninsured.  Among Hispanics, 24 percent are uninsured and among African Americans, 20 percent are without insurance.

Across the board, African Americans in Michigan die from preventable diseases at a much higher rate than whites.  African Americans and Hispanics have significantly higher infant mortality rates than whites in our state.  You can find more detail about these and other disparities in a League report on health disparities.

The Community Catalyst report proposes five strategies that could strengthen efforts at the local and state level to reduce health disparities.  They include:

  • Building and strengthening community-based organizations
  • Encouraging statewide health access groups to prioritize equity work
  • Building coalitions of community, state and national organizations
  • Connecting various stakeholders
  • Developing a disparities reduction/health equity policy agenda

We are already doing some of these things here in Michigan.  But the numbers tell us that we need to do better.  The League will continue to look for opportunities to play a role in reducing health disparities in our state.

— Karen Holcomb-Merrill

Gov. Granholm says services sales tax a no-go

Gov. Granholm says services sales tax a no-go (Sharon Parks says cuts will be too drastic without revenue)  — Detroit News

Will Michigan be ready for 2018?

We at the Michigan League for Human Services have written extensively about the need for Michigan to invest in postsecondary education and training. A new report from Georgetown University called Help Wanted provides projections for future job demand that underscore this need.

According to the report, the number of Michigan jobs requiring postsecondary education will grow by 116,000 between 2008 and 2018, while jobs for workers with no education past high school (including dropouts) will grow by only 22,000.

In Michigan, 62 percent of jobs in 2018 will require some postsecondary education and 28 percent will require a bachelor’s or graduate degree. These figures are close to projections for the nation as a whole.

Jobs that require some level of postsecondary training (such as an associate’s degree or a recognized vocational credential) but not a bachelor’s degree are called “middle skill jobs.” This is where a large part of the job growth will be in the next several years.

What is driving the increasing need for postsecondary education? According to the report, it is technology. Throughout our country’s history, technological development has favored workers with more education, and in turn, demand for these workers grows as the technology spreads throughout the economy.

So what are Michigan and the United States doing in light of all this? The good news is that No Worker Left Behind has been very successful in its first three years. It has enrolled more than 131,000 workers, and 75 percent of the 58,000 program completers have found new employment or retained a job that had been at risk.

However, in contrast to the $40 million in state funds that Gov. Jennifer Granholm recommended for its first year, the state only invested $4.5 million in No Worker Left Behind this fiscal year, with the vast majority of funding coming from the federal government.

This may have worked fine when there was federal money to be had. But, according to the Lansing State Journal, federal funding will be cut by $92.4 million as the need in other states becomes greater and as stimulus funds begin to dry up. Because workers already in training programs will receive highest priority for the remaining funding, No Worker Left Behind will not be able to enroll many new trainees in the near future.

There has to be serious monetary investment in adult learning by both the state and the nation if we are going to have a workforce that can meet the job demands of the upcoming decade. If Michigan plans to be competitive, it must make sure it has the money to upskill its workforce when federal funds are scarce.

Right now our state doesn’t have the money. And though it sounds like a broken record to say so again, we won’t have the money until we devise a way to increase state revenues.

— Peter Ruark

Dillon, Bernero largely agree on business tax incentives

Dillon, Bernero largely agree on business tax incentives (Uses League’s paper on tax loopholes) — Michigan Messenger

State government unraveling?

State government is unraveling.  At least that was my impression after reading the subscriber-only Gongwer News Service report from Friday.  The newsletter included an extensive piece about Michigan’s progress under a court settlement related to foster care.

According to the article, the most recent official report on the lawsuit settlement stated, “thousands of children continue to linger in care without permanent families; too many youth continue to age out of care without health care or a permanent home; and too many children remain in unlicensed relative homes.”

The report said the Department of Human Services did not have enough staff to meet the caseload ratio standards required in the 2008 settlement.

A veteran child protective services worker told Gongwer that workers are “so stressed they regularly have breakdowns and you find them crying in the bathroom.”  Low job satisfaction has resulted in increased leaves for stress and higher turnover rates, which were already high prior to the lawsuit.

The Granholm administration has attempted to address this problem by recommending the restoration of 197 staff positions cut last year, the addition of 500 new staff and retaining the temporary staff brought in to help meet the requirements of the lawsuit.  Unfortunately the Department of Human Services Senate Appropriations Subcommittee is only willing to commit to 151 new child protective services workers.

Foster care is not the only area in which the Department of Human Services is not keeping up.  Another article in the same Gongwer issue notes that the average eligibility specialist carries a caseload of 700, again leading to burnout and frustration on the part of workers and clients.  Safety in local DHS office continues to be a concern yet DHS officials, according to Gongwer, say staffing increases are not likely since funds for staffing are stagnant.

There’s more…..A third article reports that financial audits released by the Auditor General show that several departments need to improve their internal controls to ensure they are correctly monitoring spending.  The Department of Natural Resources needs to properly account for and process reservation fees from state parks and forests.  The Department of Education was urged to take steps to protect its security and financial data, and to periodically monitor its internal controls over financial issues.  The State Police was urged to improve its internal controls over payroll processing.

These three articles all point to an increasingly common theme throughout state government—not enough workers to do the work, at least not in a way that ensures safety and well-being, as well as accountability for public tax dollars.

Just something to think about as another state retirement plan is discussed and candidates on the campaign trail promise smaller government.

— Sharon Parks

Teen pregnancy rate down; more kids in Michigan getting education

Teen pregnancy rate down; more kids in Michigan getting education (Jane Zehnder-Merrell quoted on teen pregnancy trends in mid-sized counties)  — Macomb Daily News

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