Getting state priorities right by investing in children and families

With the reassurance that state revenues will grow slightly next year, state legislators will soon meet to iron out differences between the House and Senate spending plans for 2019. Decisions are expected to be made quickly, in part because it is an election year and both House and Senate members are eager to return to their districts to campaign. At the League, we hope that in their haste lawmakers don’t forget to make wise investments in the state’s children and families—many of whom have yet to recover fully from the great recession in Michigan and nationally.

Kids Count data show that despite lower unemployment rates statewide, for many families the only jobs available are low-wage and lack benefits, leaving parents struggling to make ends meet. The result has been stubbornly high rates of poverty, affecting one of every five children in the state, including more than 40% of African-American and 30% of Latinx children.

So what is the connection between the state budget and childhood poverty? It is through the allocation of state revenues—not campaign slogans—that lawmakers reveal their true priorities. By controlling the state’s purse strings, Michigan legislators have the power to change the odds for families struggling to find their way in the state’s shifting economy by investing in human capital, including health and human services, education, and early childhood education and care.

Poverty is itself a barrier to work. Parents who struggle to secure adequate food, clothing, shelter and transportation are less able to find and keep jobs—much less get the education and training they need to move forward and secure their children’s futures. Yet, state investments in public assistance programs that help stabilize families and ensure that children do not live in deep poverty have dropped dramatically.

House_Senate Human Srvcs chart 2One painfully blatant example is the state’s failure to increase income assistance grants for decades, along with the adoption of strict lifetime limits and other punitive policies for the Family Independence Program (FIP). The result has been a steep decline in the number of children receiving income assistance at the same time that child poverty remains high.

The governor recommended a very meager FIP grant increase of 1.2% for 2019, an increase that equates to $2 per person per month and leaves the maximum grant at only 29% of poverty. The House and Senate rejected even this tiny recognition of the continual erosion in purchasing power of state assistance, seemingly unaware that 80% of the beneficiaries are children, or not understanding that children won’t succeed if their parents can’t.

The League supports the governor’s grant increase as a baby step in the right direction, and further seeks an expansion of the annual clothing allowance for children receiving income assistance. In addition, the League is advocating for adequate healthcare services, more access to high quality child care for families with low wages, funds to expand the early identification of children with developmental delays and better support for high-poverty schools. Check out the League’s website for summaries of the differences between the House and Senate budgets, and join us by contacting your legislators.

— Pat Sorenson