From Charlottesville to Lansing, we must tackle racial equity

Like so many across the country, I struggled with the racism laid bare in Charlottesville. While I was not surprised by its existence, I couldn’t help but recoil from the highly personal nature of the hate language that was heard around the world, and the sense of entitlement with which it was expressed.

ClassroomIt is yet another reminder of how far we have to go in this country and it can feel overwhelming. At times like these, I believe that we all need to find actions that we can take—however small they may appear—to address the deep divides in our country, state and neighborhoods.

At the League, we are scrutinizing state budget and policy decisions to see if they are helping to create more equity for children and families of color or are actually contributing to the problem, even if unintentionally.

What is clear is that state budgets and policies that are “colorblind” can perpetuate pervasive and unacceptable outcomes for the state’s children of color.

One example is the passage in Michigan of a law that allows—under some circumstances—for third-graders to be held back if they are not reading proficiently. The law was well-intentioned. Lawmakers understood the importance of early reading to future school success and adopted a law to focus public schools and resources on the problem of low reading proficiency.

BB-Chart 13However, without sufficient funds to invest in the early years—from birth through third grade—the retention law could actually contribute to growing racial and ethnic disparities. In the 2015-2016 school year, 56% of African-American and 38% of Latino third-graders were not reading proficiently and could have been subject to grade retention if the policy had been implemented that year, compared to 21% of their White peers.

To avoid an inequitable outcome from the third-grade reading bill, state leaders will need to simultaneously provide schools the resources they need to improve reading skills, and address realities outside the classroom that are inexorably tied to student achievement and success in reading, including the well-documented impact of poverty.

So far, too little has been invested to overcome the historical and cumulative impact of discrimination and poverty on children’s ability to learn and achieve. The data show that women of color are more likely to lack access to timely prenatal care, and their children are consequently born too early and too small—increasing their risk of learning problems. Many women of color struggle to find healthy food for their children in the many “healthy food deserts” in both urban and remote rural communities. And, there are big holes in the state’s early learning system—including a shortage of high-quality child care that is affordable.

The reality is that outcomes for children are tied to race, income and zip code, and this must be changed for Michigan to move forward. The state budget is a potent tool for addressing the structural barriers to equity for all children in the state, but its potential won’t be realized until Michigan residents demand it.

— Pat Sorenson

Some good news about poverty, but Michigan still has a long way to go

Poverty bar chartOn Sept. 14, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual state poverty statistics. We learned that Michigan’s total poverty rate (15%) and child poverty rate (20.2%) are at their lowest in eight years, and that the poverty rate for African-Americans and Native Americans fell significantly since last year.

A poverty rate that is almost back to where it was just before the Great Recession is something to celebrate. It suggests there are fewer people experiencing serious hardship in our state. But, as so often is the case, there are a few caveats to the good news.

Pov pull quoteFirst, the poverty rate simply shows the percentage of the population that is below the federal poverty threshold. This measure was designed in the 1960s based on food costs, and many experts—including the person who created the poverty threshold measure—believe it is outdated as a tool for determining levels of need. While the poverty threshold for a single parent household with two children is $24,339, for example, the League in its Making Ends Meet report calculates that after taking expenses such as rent and full-time child care into account, the household would need $47,321 to meet its needs without government or private assistance—nearly twice as much as the poverty threshold. We must never assume that just because a family is not officially considered poor, it is not experiencing financial difficulty.

Poverty full time year roundSecond, it is possible for a person to work full time and be in poverty. A full-time, year-round minimum wage job will not bring a three-person family above the poverty line. The idea that “the best way to leave poverty is through work” is correct, but only if the job pays an adequate wage.

Third, Michigan does not do a good job at helping its residents leave poverty. Temporary cash assistance (popularly called “welfare”) is only available to households with income below $9,768 per year—approximately half the poverty threshold and considered to be “extreme poverty.” Michigan’s Legislature has not set the minimum wage at a level that will enable workers to leave poverty through work. And, Michigan has cut adult education funding and programs that help low-skilled workers attain the skills and credentials they need to be successful in the job market.

The Census data also shows that Flint has the worst poverty rate in the nation for a city its size, and Detroit, while its rate declined, is still ranked high as well. Michigan needs to figure out how to bring jobs back to the state or grow new jobs, but also invest more in adult education and making college tuition cheaper to make sure that the people who are suffering the most are prepared for those new jobs.

Policymakers in Michigan cannot just sit on their laurels because the poverty rate is improving. Rather, they need to prioritize state funding to help make work pay and to help residents get the skills they need to leave poverty permanently and move toward economic security.

— Peter Ruark

Are we really concerned about the children?

I think I would be hard-pressed to find a state lawmaker who did not care about children and the well-being of the next generation. Many are parents and grandparents, so they feel that concern at the most personal level. They want the best for their family—good schools, safe communities, access to healthy food and the best medical care.

Their dreams for their children are shared by most parents in the state, including those who struggle to support their children on low-wage jobs, can’t find or afford safe and high-quality child care, don’t have reliable transportation to get to work, or send their children to schools that are not prepared to meet their needs.

Despite Lansing rhetoric about supporting children, many are suffering—in part because of state policies and budgets that have at best not aggressively addressed the antecedents of poverty, and at their worst have forced more children into deeper poverty.

BB League recommendations graph 2Michigan has for many years disinvested in basic income assistance programs for families struggling to find and keep work. Since 2007, state lawmakers have restricted eligibility for public assistance through more stringent lifetime limits, toughened sanctions (including stopping benefits for a whole family if one child is truant), and imposed an asset test for food assistance. And, with virtually no increases in the monthly income assistance available to eligible families (currently a maximum of $492/month for a family of three), children are living in deeper and deeper poverty.

As a result of these changes, the number of children receiving income assistance through the state’s Family Independence Program (FIP) has plummeted while child poverty remains stubbornly high. Children represent nearly 8 of every 10 persons receiving FIP assistance, so any policy that restricts help to families is causing the greatest hurt to children, and especially young children.

And why is this a problem for all Michigan residents? First, investing in children is the right thing to do and it is what we expect of ourselves as residents of this state. I don’t think many of us would sleep well at night knowing that we had done something—even unintentionally—to hurt a child.

Second, it is to our mutual advantage. With our rapidly aging population, the next generation of workers and parents are the foundation for growth and stability of the state’s economy. The link between childhood poverty and a host of negative outcomes for children is undeniable and includes poor health, higher rates of disability and reduced academic achievement—all potential barriers to success in the workforce.

The governor has recommended funding in the 2018 state budget that could benefit families living in or near poverty, including continuation of the “heat and eat” policy that expands food assistance and an increase in the annual clothing allowance for families receiving FIP. The League supports those investments as a first step on a long path.

For more on the governor’s budget and the League’s priorities, see our most recent Budget Brief (link here).

— Pat Sorenson

Economic recovery leaves Michigan children behind

Michigan is the “comeback state,” so we’ve heard. But, for whom? Michigan has more children living in poverty now than it did in the last full year of the Great Recession. Not only that, but since 2008, there are more children whose parents lack secure employment and more children living in concentrated poverty. Children and families in Michigan are being left behind in the economic recovery. (more…)

Schools out! Why some kids aren’t as excited for summer

As we counted down the last days of the school year, most of us were excited planning our summer vacations and camps. At the same time, too many kids were wondering how they were going to eat over the summer – something most of us take for granted. (more…)

Third grade reading, adult ed must be restored

For Immediate Release
March 24, 2015

Contact: Stacey Range Messina
smessina@mlpp.org
517.487.5436 |  517.214.5994 after 3 p.m.

 

New reports prove need for investments, not cuts

LANSING – A House Appropriations subcommittee today eliminated all funding next year for adult education and for Gov. Snyder’s proposed third grade reading initiative, bucking recommendations of two new reports proving the dire need to boost both areas.

Promoting Early Literacy in Michigan,” released today by the Michigan League for Public Policy, asserts that the ability to read by the end of third grade is central to a child’s success in school, life-long earning potential, and ability to contribute to the nation’s economy. But in 2013 almost two of every five Michigan third-graders did not demonstrate reading proficiency on the MEAP, according to the Michigan Department of Education. About 10,000 of those 40,000 students scored at the most elementary level. Most students who fail to achieve this critical milestone fall further behind and often drop out before earning a high school diploma.

Willing to Work and Ready to Learn: More Adult Education Would Strengthen Michigan’s Economy,” released by the Michigan League for Public Policy earlier this month, shows that too few adults are getting the basic skills education they need to succeed in occupational training and find a way out of low-paying, dead-end jobs and into careers that can support their families.

(more…)

Why kids count

Recent news reports celebrate the decline in the unemployment rate and the quickened tempo of the recovery. But four years into the recovery, Michigan’s child poverty rates remain consistently high.

In 2013, one of every four children in Michigan lived in a family with income below the federal poverty level (roughly $18,800 for a single-parent family of three and $23,600 for a two-parent family of four), according to the latest Kids Count in Michigan Data Book, released today. (more…)

Many kids stuck in poverty without solutions

Contact: Judy Putnam or Jane Zehnder-Merrell, 517.487.5436

Kids Count in Mich. ranks 82 counties on child well-being

LANSING, Mich. – Too many kids in Michigan remain mired in poverty at a time when policymakers have reduced help for struggling families, according to the Kids Count in Michigan Data Book 2015 released today.

Three measures of economic conditions worsened over the trend period with nearly one in every four children living in an impoverished household, a 35 percent increase in child poverty over six years. The trend period measured from 2006 to 2012 or 2013, depending on the availability of data.

(more…)

‘Yes’ on road funding is right direction

From the League’s First Tuesday newsletter
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It’s a pivotal time for Michigan public policy. Decisions made in the next few months will determine the path Michigan takes into the future.

In three short months, voters on May 5 will decide Proposal 1, the road funding package. There’s no doubt that this is Michigan’s single best chance to raise sorely needed money to pay for road repairs and put new dollars into school classrooms all while protecting families earning the least. (more…)

More child care oversight needed

Every day in Michigan, parents head out to work with their young children in tow, dropping them off at local child care centers or homes. Child care is a necessity for many working families because they rely on two incomes to make ends meet or because they are raising children as single parents.

Yet oversight of health and safety requirements is stretched far too thin in Michigan, a new policy brief from the League concludes. (more…)

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