Why I have zero tolerance for “zero tolerance”

A few blocks from our office is the building formerly known as Walnut Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten through third grade. Depending on where I’m going or coming from, I occasionally chance past it and a memory or two always comes to mind.

The playground area is especially noteworthy (and not just because of the AMAZING Another Bad Creation song). I lost my first real fight there, cutting open my eyebrow on a corner of the brick building and requiring stitches. And I won my first fight there, in a “Christmas Story”-esque vanquishing of a longstanding bully that has infamously and affectionately become known as “The Time You Hit Larry With the Boot” to my siblings (I turned the 80s-tastic moon boot that came off my foot in the melee as a weapon of opportunity).

principals_office2It was a simpler time then and I don’t remember getting suspended for either of these incidents. To my recollection, writing “sentences” was the most frequent punishment meted out. And I assure you that in my early years, I wrote almost as many sentences as Bart Simpson.

I was suspended once, later in elementary school, again for fighting (though mostly for really pushing a substitute teacher’s buttons). In middle school and high school, I did occasionally find myself in detention or kicked out of class. And I wore several t-shirts and did several things in high school that probably wouldn’t fly today in terms of good taste or a safe environment.

Kids today haven’t had it so easy and don’t get the same chances to be KIDS, do dumb things and learn from them. The dramatic increase in school shootings and heightened fear of terror attacks led to Michigan lawmakers passing “zero tolerance” laws. But as is often the case, legislators overcorrected.

Beginning with state legislation that took effect in 1995, these zero tolerance school policies were hamstringing school officials and forcing them to treat every incident the same, regardless of the context or intent. There have been countless instances of a kid making an honest mistake, but getting suspended or expelled nonetheless because zero tolerance left no discretion. In the 2014-2015 school year, 1,347 students were expelled, with a median of 157 days expelled. These policies also were having an adverse effect on students of color in particular, with significant racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions that also contribute to lower graduation rates and higher rates of incarceration.

Luckily, parents, teachers, organizations and elected officials began to take notice of the flaws of zero tolerance school policies. We at the League have been speaking out against these policies since 2003, when they were addressed in our Kids Count Data Book. And we, along with the ACLU and other concerned organizations, have been working for more than a decade to fix these policieswork that will finally pay off next week when the elimination of Michigan’s zero tolerance school discipline problems takes effect.

The League was proud to support the passage of these bills, as they will better serve students, parents and schools. It was encouraging that these bills received bipartisan support and were heralded by Governor Rick Snyder. We all want safe schools, and truly malicious or dangerous behavior will still be punished accordingly. But the huge majority of kids that, like me, had a lapse in judgment or are just a little unruly, will now be able to be treated more reasonably and fairly. And that’s good news for us all.

— Alex Rossman

An interview with analyst Julie Cassidy on health equity

Earlier in July, League policy analyst Julie Cassidy attended the Michigan Public Health Institute’s Health Equity and Social Justice Workshop. Here, she weighs in on some questions relating to the workshop and to inequity in the healthcare industry.

Q: What are the root causes of health inequity?
A. We look a lot at “upstream factors” related to a person’s health, such as access to transportation, housing conditions, access to healthy food, that sort of thing. But there are actually factors even further upstream than that, and the three main ones are institutional racism, class oppression, and gender discrimination. Those things have a major influence on the social determinants of health.

Q: Can you give an example of this kind of inequity?
A: We learned that African-American patients on Medicare are three times more likely to have a limb amputated as White patients on Medicare. Both groups had similar health backgrounds. So we talked about why that might be. One reason might be geographic. Hospitals or healthcare facilities in areas with larger-than-average African-American populations might have different practices and policies that ultimately result in more amputations. Additionally, African-Americans might face more barriers than people of other races to measures that can prevent amputation.

2017_Health-and-Safety_WebBut there could also be implicit bias on the part of the healthcare provider, which is a frightening issue. Providers might be making unconscious judgments about a person’s ability to manage their own health, or they might be making judgments about the value of people’s bodies based on race. The doctor might assume “This person is not going to do what I tell them to do to manage this problem, so I might as well just amputate to avoid further problems.” It’s really disturbing to think about. But we need to think about it if we want to effect change.

Q: Can you explain the social justice movement taking place in public health?
A: We learned that public health arose in the first place as a response to industrialization, which is really interesting. Through the public health field, we made all these historic advances in health status through things like the abolition of child labor, food safety, adequate housing and the establishment of the minimum wage. Over time, though, the role of public health began to serve more of a technical and managerial role, while many inequities in society were exposed, and of course many have worsened. We’re now going back to those social justice roots. We’re examining how power imbalances and issues of privilege affect public health.

Q: What was the biggest takeaway from the workshop for someone in your position?
A: I saw that there was still a lot of value in applying the concepts to our policy work. The workshop presented a particular framework that resonated with me: The Four Levels of Oppression and Change. This was helpful to me in thinking about where we can be most effective in promoting a policy change. The levels are: Personal, Interpersonal, Institutional, and Cultural. Cultural refers to those broader ideas about what is normal or right or true. A permanent change requires intervention on all four levels, and one person or even one group can’t make those big changes. Working in the policy area, we focus mostly on the institutional level, but this framework helped me to be more conscious of the right ways to make decisions about the kind of advocacy we’re engaged in.

Q: What are some stories from the event that impacted you?
A: We shared a lot of personal stories about experiences with poverty or injustice, and discussed the trauma that a lot of people with low incomes can face, from infancy to adulthood. We watched a film called “The Raising of America” that detailed the community trauma that occurs. It followed an urban neighborhood made up mainly of people of color. What really stood out to me was that children growing up in this community were experiencing the same kind of stress that causes PTSD, basically from the day they’re born. It’s the same kind of stress that you hear about people experiencing in combat. But in this case it’s constant, not just one isolated event. It’s a lifelong trauma in many cases, and we talked a lot about the community bonds that are necessary to keep people healthy and safe.

Q: What is it that community leaders and groups should be doing to help?
A: Well, there’s a history of disinvestment in low-income communities and communities where there are a lot of people of color. And that comes out in the form of a lack of parks and greenspace, programs for kids—in some of these areas it’s not safe to go for a walk. So there has to be a focus on making these investments in communities where they’re most needed, not just in communities where residents have the money and can decide to pay higher taxes.

In the film, one community put in a neighborhood fitness center. Some people would look at that and say, “That’s a luxury. Why is this low-income community wasting its tax dollars on a gym?” But if your neighborhood is not safe for jogging, if you can’t send your kids outside to play in their own yard, and if we accept the premise that exercise is important to maintaining good health and that people have a responsibility to exercise, then a gym is essential. Those are the kind of things that we should be investing in.

Q: What about the healthcare industry? Other than education, what are some steps that can be taken to combat inequity?
A: As the healthcare field moves more and more toward a team-based model and community- and home-based care, we might need to rethink the traditional credentials used to determine whether someone is qualified to be a healthcare provider. People from families with low incomes, people of color, and people with disabilities face a lot of barriers to getting the education required to provide healthcare under the traditional model. However, we need people from these communities and demographic groups to play a role in public health. They have a perspective that is often lacking, and they can be more effective in connecting with the service population, building trust, and helping doctors and policymakers to better serve these populations.

Q: What can Michigan residents do to help stop this inequity?
A: If you don’t work in the public health or policy field, it can be tough to make a direct impact. But honestly, a lot of it comes back to the importance of listening to people when they talk about their experiences, and just having empathy. These things start close to us, so we have to have uncomfortable conversation with our friends and co-workers and families. We need to have the tools to address these conversations as they come up—to learn to address bias and racism and assumptions, to be deliberate and intentional with the language that we use. We can get at the cultural level of oppression when we begin to examine our personal relationships.

Q: Where could someone go to learn more about health equity and social justice?
A: Some good educational resources could be found at Center for Global Policy Solutions, Demos, the Center for Social Inclusion and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. People in Michigan looking to do advocacy work could contact Action of Greater Lansing, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance , their local Black Lives Matter groups, or their local health departments. The Ingham County Health Department has some great resources, for example.



Parental incarceration takes devastating toll on children

  July 2017
  Mallory Boyce, Kids Count Project Intern


Parental incarceration takes devastating toll graphic 1

The nature of the parent-child relationship is a crucial factor for a child’s overall well-being, both during childhood and extending into adulthood. When a parent is incarcerated, that relationship is threatened and children are often left in an unstable environment, causing them to suffer the consequences of their parent’s incarceration in myriad ways.

During criminal justice proceedings, the crime and its punishment are all too often the only two factors considered—overlooking the consequences that sentencing and geographic prison placement will have on the children or family of the accused. This is an unfortunate oversight as the effects of having an incarcerated parent can be equally as traumatic for a child as experiencing divorce, abuse or domestic violence.6

Considering the rapid growth of both the federal and state prison populations across the country in more recent history, it is essential to understand the effects that a parent’s incarceration has on a child. Simply put, higher prison populations mean that more parents are incarcerated and that more children are negatively affected.

Parental incarceration takes devastating toll graphic 2While the effects of a parent’s incarceration vary based on a child’s specific situation and the supports available to them, negative consequences have been echoed in conversations with family after family.


Financial Burden: A family’s income drops by an average of 22% when a father is incarcerated, and on average remains 15% lower even when the father is released from prison.7

Sense of Shame: Shame is often induced by judgment from a child’s peers or other members of their community.8

Strained Relationship With Incarcerated Parent: Around 60% of parents in state prisons are held over 100 miles from their previous residence.9 This makes it difficult for a child to maintain regular contact with their parent, which could otherwise help minimize the trauma associated with a parent’s incarceration.

Parental incarceration takes devastating toll graphic 4Behavioral Problems: Behavioral concerns may arise during this tumultuous period of a child’s life.10 However, it is important to note that perpetuating the stigma that the child themselves is now destined for a “life of crime” can be damaging, and communities should instead work to properly support struggling children.


Difficulties in Transition: Parents returning from their incarceration might have difficulty adjusting to life at home and could find themselves to be emotionally distant from family members, including their children.

Criminal Justice Debt: With the average conviction-related costs (including fees, fines and other payments) for one person being $13,607, up to 85% of people return from prison with criminal justice debt12—money that they owe for being convicted of a crime which also accrues at a time when they have little to no income. This results in fewer resources for the family and children, placing an additional strain on the household.

Lifelong Consequences: The detrimental effects of parental incarceration continue into adulthood as well. It is one of several adverse childhood experiences that can be associated with higher rates of poor health, low life satisfaction, depression and anxiety among other concerns.13

Parental incarceration takes devastating toll graphic 3VULNERABLE POPULATIONS

The children most likely to have an incarcerated parent are often already the most vulnerable—children from families with low incomes and from communities of color. This disparity is due to a number of factors, one being the systemic racism encompassed by the more recent “War on Drugs.” In fact, African-Americans are around three and four times more likely to be arrested for possessing and selling drugs, respectively, despite being no more likely to sell or use drugs than Whites are.14


It must be our priority to meet the needs of children who are faced with the many challenges caused by having an incarcerated parent. There is much that community members and policymakers can do to offer proper support to these children:

  • Communities and individuals must ensure that families are able to care for children both during and after a parent’s incarceration while also crafting an environment where children feel free from judgment and instead feel safe sharing their experiences and emotions.
  • Schools, faith-based organizations and other local groups must work closely with families and the criminal justice system to create multidimensional support for children and their families.
  • The criminal justice system must work to preserve the family unit—considering the child’s well-being during the arrest and sentencing, allowing children reasonable access to their parent during incarceration, and utilizing prison time to empower the parent to be able to provide for their family after their incarceration.

In their policy report, A Shared Sentence: The devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities, the Annie E. Casey Foundation offers these policy recommendations to alleviate the consequences faced by children of incarcerated parents:

  1. Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return.
  2. Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment.
  3. Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunity.

Download A Shared Sentence: www.mlpp.org/kids-count/michigan/a-shared-sentence.


  1. The Sentencing Project. State-by-State Data. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved June 13, 2017 from http://www.sentencingproject.org/the-facts/#map.
  2. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2016, April). A Shared Sentence: The devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities, 2. Baltimore, MD.
  3. Michigan Department of Corrections. (2016, August 23). 2015 Statistical Report. Retrieved June 13, 2017 from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/corrections/MDOC_2015_Statistical_Report_-_2016.08.23_532907_7.pdf.
  4. United States Census Bureau, Quick Facts Table: Michigan. Retrieved June 13, 2017 from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/RHI125215/26.
  5. The Prisoner Reimbursement to the County Act, Mich. Comp. Laws. 801.83 (1984).
  6. Hairston, C.F. (2007). Focus on the children with incarcerated parents: An overview of the research literature. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 18.
  7. The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2010). Collateral costs: Incarceration’s effect on economic mobility. Washington, DC: Author.
  8. Hairston, C.F., op. cit.
  9. Mauer, M., Nellis, A., Schirmir, S.; Incarcerated Parents and Their Children – Trends 1991 – 2007, The Sentencing Project, Feb. 2009.
  10. Allard, P., Greene, J.; Children on the outside: Voicing the pain and human costs of parental incarceration, Justice Strategies, Jan. 2011.
  11. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, op. cit.
  12. Saneta deVuono-powell, Chris Schweidler, Alicia Walters, and Azadeh Zohrabi. Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families. Oakland, CA: Ella Baker Center, Forward Together, Research Action Design, 2015.
  13. Mersky JP, Topitzes J, Reynolds AJ. Impacts of adverse childhood experiences on health, mental health, and substance use in early adulthood: a cohort study of an urban, minority sample in the U.S. Child Abuse Neglect. 2013;37 (11):917–25.
  14. Rothwell, J. (2014). How the war on drugs damages black social mobility. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.


U.S. House budget strips trillions from everyday Americans while giving huge tax cuts to the wealthy

For Immediate Release
July 19, 2017

Alex Rossman

Michigan’s congressional delegation should reject the House budget and instead work toward a bipartisan plan that matches our state’s needs and priorities

LANSING—The U.S. House Republicans’ new budget proposal being debated today would make it harder for millions of Michigan families to make ends meet, with drastic cuts to healthcare and key assistance programs. Despite attempts to distance themselves from President Donald Trump’s horrendous budget, House Republicans are advancing a budget that would strip trillions of dollars from middle class and working families while providing tax giveaways to the very wealthy and profitable corporations. The budget also creates a special fast-track process that would allow Republicans to force through massive cuts in public investments and big tax breaks without bipartisan support.

“The House Republican budget proposal has the same fatal flaws as President Trump’s budget plan. It attacks support programs and economic opportunity for millions of struggling Michiganians to pay for huge tax cuts for the wealthy,” said Karen Holcomb-Merrill, vice president for the Michigan League for Public Policy. “It would also shift massive costs and likely bring massive cuts to the Michigan budget at a time when our state is already struggling to invest in education, transportation and other services hardworking Michigan residents rely on.”

For Michigan, the budget plan could result in devastating cuts to programs that expand economic opportunity for Michiganians, including job training, education and economic development programs in cities and rural communities. The budget would fall hardest on Michigan residents struggling in today’s economy, with cuts to programs that provide income assistance to help families get back on their feet and help nearly 1.4 million people in Michigan—including 563,753 children—afford groceries through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As Republicans continue their efforts to sabotage healthcare access, the budget includes additional cuts to Medicaid, which helps 2.5 million people in Michigan, including more than 650,000 through the Healthy Michigan Plan.

And underlying the whole budget proposal is a set of false assumptions about economic growth to hide that the proposed tax cuts would dramatically increase deficits and shift ballooning costs to states when revenues fall short of projections.

“The people of Michigan deserve a responsible federal budget proposal from our members of Congress—one that is based on real economic conditions and addresses the real challenges faced by struggling families, not one that uses fuzzy math to justify big tax breaks,” said Holcomb-Merrill. “Instead of fast-tracking cuts that shortchange Michiganians and threaten our state budget and economy, Michigan Republican members of Congress should focus on creating a bipartisan plan that makes investments in programs that match our priorities.”

The League has been tracking the potential disastrous impact of the federal budget on Michigan residents since President Trump’s “skinny budget” came out in March. The League has asserted that the Trump budget is an attack on people living in poverty and the programs that help them provide for their families. The Trump budget would have harmful effects on food assistance, energy security and health, and other programs. While the House’s budget proposal is not an exact replica of the Trump budget, it is largely a continuation of these devastating cuts.


The Michigan League for Public Policy, www.mlpp.org, is a nonprofit policy institute focused on economic opportunity for all. It is the only state-level organization that addresses poverty in a comprehensive way.

Oakland Press: Column by League CEO Gilda Z. Jacobs: Jacobs: Income tax cut is wrong answer for a stronger Michigan

Regardless of your political leanings, we all agree that we want a vibrant and thriving Michigan. This was true when I proudly served Oakland County in the Michigan Legislature from 1998-2010, and I imagine it is just as true in today’s Legislature.

But there is a growing divide over how best to achieve that. Some current legislators argue that eliminating Michigan’s state income tax is the magic bullet to resolve our economic woes. However, in my work at the helm of the Michigan League for Public Policy, which has been around for more than a century and seen countless political trends come and go, I know that the opposite — investment — is a much more effective way forward.  July 5, 2017 — Oakland Press

Bridge Magazine: Column by League Board Chair Charles Ballard: Only in a fantasy world do tax cuts pay for themselves

Michigan’s roads and bridges are crumbling. Our water and sewer systems are aging. Cuts to state support for higher education have led to skyrocketing tuition at public universities in Michigan. So naturally, some members of the Michigan Legislature want to cut taxes.

The First Rule of Holes is that if you’re in a hole, you should stop digging. It seems that some members of the Legislature are unaware of the First Rule of Holes. June 29, 2017 — Bridge Magazine

WKAR Radio (East Lansing): McConnell Suspends Healthcare Debate

McConnell pushed Senate consideration on legislation that would repeal the act, delaying further action until after the fourth of July recess.

Emily Schwarzkopf is an analyst with the Michigan League for Public Policy. She says she was pleased to hear about the delay.

“Well I think we definitely see it as a small win, and we’re very thankful for all of the advocates and people that are very concerned about what the senate and the house are trying to pass,” said Schwarzkopf. June 28, 2017 — WKAR Radio (East Lansing)

Associated Press/WLNS CBS TV 6 (Lansing): Michigan Senate gives final approval to $56.7 billion budget

Republicans say the budget includes record spending on K-12 education, money to train new state troopers and addresses debt in the teacher retirement system.

Programs to support food assistance and help with heating costs also were included in the budget.

That drew praise from the Michigan League for Public Policy. That group’s President and CEO Gilda Jacobs said “The decision to continue funding the Healthy Michigan Plan is a win for all Michiganians—especially the 660,000 residents who rely on the plan for healthcare.”  June 22, 2017 — Associated Press/WLNS CBS TV 6 (Lansing)

WCMU: Trump budget is “Robin Hood in reverse” according to policy organizations

According to officials with the Michigan League for Public Policy, federal budget cuts would impact food assistance, disability, and medicaid.

Gilda Jacobs is the CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy which promotes economic opportunity for all. She said the budget is an assault on the poor.

“There are so many people that, and children in particular, who depend on food assistance to get by every day. We know that food assistance is going to be slashed by 193 billion dollars over ten years. It targets the elderly, working families, and just workers who are out as job seekers.” May 25, 2017 — WCMU

WLNS CBS TV 6: Proposed food stamp cuts could mean thousands without meals in Michigan

It’s an issue Michigan League for Public Policy CEO Gilda Jacobs says would set our nation back rather than help it move forward.

“There is a ripple affect honestly, addressing the nutritional needs of kids.” May 23, 2017 — WLNS CBS TV 6

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