Mass incarceration and the kids left behind

Losing a parent to incarceration can be very traumatic for children. Not understanding why a parent is gone and can’t come home, wondering why he or she might be far away, being frustrated because frequent visits might not be possible all while the other parent undergoes tremendous financial and emotional stress.

In Michigan at least 1 in 10 children has been impacted by parental incarceration. This is one of the highest rates in the country—only Indiana (11%) and Kentucky (13%) have higher percentages of children who have had a parent incarcerated. As a result of mass incarceration and the “tough on crime” movement many children and families have been left behind in communities without adequate support and resources.

According to a new KIDS COUNT report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities, more than 5 million children in the United States have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives, including 228,000 in Michigan. With the recent interest to reform corrections policies, the report’s recommendations emphasize that children’s needs must not continue to be overlooked.

Incarceration destabilizes a child’s life in many ways. It causes stress and can have long-term effects on a child’s well-being. The report points to the trauma of being separated from a parent that when combined with a lack of sympathy or supports can increase mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. Losing a parent to incarceration can leave single mothers or grandparents with unexpected financial responsibilities—on top of the emotional strain—which can make it harder for the caretakers left behind to provide emotional support to the affected children.

Casey Incarceration Report_Michigan_Percent

Additionally, when fathers are incarcerated, the average family income drops by 22% leaving families unable to afford necessities, like food, utilities, rent and medical care for their children. The loss of income is only exacerbated by high court-related fines and fees, telephone calls, and costs to travel to visit since oftentimes the parent is incarcerated far away from home. The report cites research that found that if incarceration rates had not increased so significantly between 1980 and 2004, then the U.S. poverty rate would have fallen by 20% rather than remain steady.

The report points to three broad goals with specific recommendations in each:

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

Michigan has the opportunity to make changes through sentencing reforms to control the prison population, increased funding for prisoner education and training, support for “ban the box,” removing our 17-year-old children from the adult prison system, improved reentry support and by facilitating access for affected families to financial, legal, child care and housing assistance.

Bottom line: as discussions to reform the criminal justice system continue, the needs of children must be prioritized as systems make decisions about sentencing parents in order to minimize the impact that incarceration has on children. All kids should have a fair chance to thrive.

— Alicia Guevara Warren

Do kids really count in Michigan?

Over the past year our state has received a significant amount of attention from the Flint water crisis—exposing an entire city to poisonous lead—and the deplorable and dangerous conditions of the Detroit Public Schools. These two incidents alone beg the question of whether kids really do count in Michigan. State leaders have become extremely focused on the bottom line and reducing spending so much that basic needs like clean air, safe drinking water and quality schools have become issues.

coverThe Kids Count in Michigan Data Book 2016 reveals further evidence of the lack of attention to the needs of all children and families. In 2014, the latest year of data available, nearly half a million Michigan children lived in poverty. That is a 23 percent rate increase from 2006. Child poverty also increased in 80 of 83 Michigan counties since 2006, showing it is an issue in every corner of the state. In fact, all three measures of economic security examined in the book showed that more families are struggling to make ends meet.

We know that poverty affects every aspect of a child’s life, harming their education, physical health, socioemotional health and long-term financial security. That means that we must ensure that every child has the ability to reach their potential in order for Michigan to have a vibrant future. But significant economic disparities exist by age and race and ethnicity. Younger children are more likely to live in poverty. Almost half of African-American and nearly one-third of Latino children live in poverty. There are clearly still many structural and institutional barriers to opportunity and access that inordinately hurt people of color, and these must be eliminated to improve the well-being of all children.

The data also show that since 2006, more children are living in families investigated for child abuse and neglect—up 52 percent—and more are also being confirmed as victims. In 2014, nearly 15 of every 1,000 kids suffered from abuse or neglect, an increase of 29 percent since 2006. However, after a lawsuit resulted in a consent decree to improve safety, permanency and well-being for children in the child welfare system, the state has had fewer children placed in out-of-home care due to abuse or neglect. Compared to 2006, the out-of-home care rate has declined by 31 percent. It is apparent that targeted efforts in foster care have worked. But more needs to be done to prevent child abuse and neglect upfront to keep children out of the system altogether.

A few other startling statistics from the 2016 Kids Count Data Book include:

  • 32 percent of children live in a household where no parent has secure employment;
  • Nearly 80 percent of young children (ages 0-5) had both parents in the workforce;
  • On average, monthly child care consumed almost 40 percent of 2015 minimum wage earnings; and
  • 17 percent of children in Michigan live in high-poverty neighborhoods, including 18 percent of American Indian, 55 percent of African-American and 30 percent of Latino children. These rates for Michigan are some of the highest in the country.

There are some bright spots in the data. Michigan is doing a better job at the teen birth rate—although it is still higher than in any other industrialized nation and more work needs to be done. The infant mortality rate improved by 10 percent over the trend period; however, while the gap is closing, the rate for African-American or Black babies is still much higher than average. Plus, troubling trends are emerging for Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander infant mortality rates.

These numbers illustrate the current landscape Michigan kids are living in. But now what?

Clearly there is much work to be done to improve the lives of kids and their families. Nationally, Michigan has fallen two years in a row in our overall child well-being rank to 33rd in 2015 and we rank last in the Midwest.

For 25 years now, the Michigan League for Public Policy has been producing the Kids Count report to make sure Michigan kids have a voice in the policies that are affecting them. Our goal is to have these books in the hands of local advocates and state policymakers, not collecting dust on a shelf.

It’s time to take action before Michigan becomes an unrecognizable place where we do not want our kids to grow up. We urge lawmakers and concerned residents to take a look at this report, especially the numbers in your county, and act on our recommendations. Kids still count in our book, but a lot more needs to be done to make them count in the State Capitol.

— Alicia Guevara Warren

A two-generation strategy to reduce poverty and increase school success

The message was loud and clear at the State Board of Education meeting last week: family income and school success are inextricably linked, and Michigan’s school reform efforts will not succeed if the state doesn’t address that reality.

League President and CEO Gilda Z. Jacobs was invited by the State Board and new Superintendent Brian Whiston to address what it would take to make Michigan a top ten state for education. The Board is seeking input from education and business groups, advocacy organizations, teachers and parents—with the goal of developing a much-needed plan for action. (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…)

Michigan Must Ensure the Safety of Young Children in Child Care


Child care is a fact of life for the majority of Michigan parents, yet federal audits and studies have shown that because Michigan does not have enough child care inspectors, parents cannot rest assured that the care they choose is safe and meets even basic state licensing standards. To ensure basic health and safety, all child care centers and homes in the state are required to be licensed or registered, whether or not they accept low-income children receiving a state subsidy.

Nearly 60% of young children in Michigan live in homes where all parents are working, and more than half are in care at least one time each week. Without safe and stable child care, parents cannot work to support their children, and employers face threats to their bottom line from employee absenteeism and turnover.

Michigan’s Failure to Protect Children Exposed in Federal Audits

In unannounced visits, federal auditors found:

  • Half of the child care home providers and all of the centers that they visited had not done all required criminal record and protective services background checks on employees and other caregivers.
  • Centers that were not safe for children because of such violations as a blocked fire exit, hazardous substances within the reach of children, recalled cribs and unsupervised toddlers.

In national studies, Michigan was given a D grade because even though the state’s licensing regulations are adequate, it fails to ensure that providers are actually following the rules. Child care homes received a grade of F because Michigan is one of eight states that does not inspect homes before registration, and state law could allow for inspections only once every 10 years.

The Problem: Too Few Child Care Inspectors and High Caseloads

  • Too few child care inspectors: Federal auditors point to the insufficient number of child care inspectors as the primary weakness in Michigan’s licensing system. Michigan currently has 70 child care licensing inspectors, with caseloads of 153 child care settings for every inspector. By contrast, the national average is 98:1, and the recommended standard is 50:1.
  • Thorough inspections are needed to ensure child safety: Currently, the on-site inspection of a child care center takes between five and 15 hours, depending on the amount of travel time required as well as the size of the center and the existence of any safety violations. Child care home inspections take between three and 10 hours. In addition to on-site inspections, workers must complete incident and other reports, review and approve corrective action plans, conduct investigations on facilities operating without a license or registration, and respond to complaints. Because there are 70 inspectors spread out over 83 counties, travel times can be as high as 60 minutes one way in south central lower Michigan to 120 miles in northern lower Michigan. In the Upper Peninsula, workers may need to drive up to 200 miles one way to complete an inspection.
  • Changes in federal law will increase workload: 
    • With high caseloads, Michigan cannot meet its current responsibilities to ensure safety for young children in care.
    • By Nov. 2016, the state will be required by federal law to step up its oversight to include a pre-licensure inspection for all centers and homes, as well as a yearly unannounced visit.
    • In addition, annual inspections of unlicensed providers receiving a state subsidy will be required. The Office of Great Start has testified that it cannot meet the new federal standards with its current staff.

The Solution

The governor’s 2016 budget includes $5.7 million in federal funds to hire new licensing inspectors and bring caseloads to the current national average of one inspector for every 98 child care settings. Because of declining child care caseloads, Michigan has additional federal Child Care Development Fund dollars to spend on quality improvements next year. Federal funds that are not spent will be returned to the federal government and reallocated to other states. No state dollars will be needed to provide this extra protection for Michigan’s children.


Making kids count in the state budget

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Conditions for Michigan’s kids are progressing in some areas of child well-being but in others…. well, let’s just say we’ve got some major work ahead of us, particularly when it comes to economic security. That’s the upshot of the newly released Kids Count in Michigan Data Book.

Fortunately, the budget plan spelled out by Gov. Rick Snyder last month does a good job in a tight budget year of addressing inequities by making some investments that will drive improvements for Michigan’s kids.

Most welcome is a $49 million initiative, including $24 million for child care quality improvements, to increase the chances of more children reading proficiently by the end of third grade.


Promoting Early Literacy in Michigan


We all can agree that children should be provided the supports they need to become literate by the end of the third grade. Most students who fail to reach this critical milestone fall further behind and often drop out before earning a high school diploma. Low-income students are at higher risk of low literacy skills than their peers from higher-income families and well-resourced schools.

INVEST: States that have seen the most dramatic improvements in early literacy have made substantial investments in early interventions. Without additional funding, schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students are hampered in their efforts. For example, the substantial gains in reading proficiency among Florida students were aided by $165 million to support reading specialists and summer programs.

CURRENT SITUATION IN MICHIGAN: Roughly 40,000 of the state’s third-graders did not demonstrate proficiency in MEAP reading in 2013, and 10,000 of those had scores at the most elementary level (4)—NOT proficient.


EARLY INTERVENTION IS PREVENTION: Let’s begin by strengthening existing systems for maternal and infant health, child lead poisoning prevention, early intervention for children with disabilities or developmental delays and improved access to subsidized high quality child care. Expanded access to preschool for 3-year-olds and dental care for Medicaid-eligible children would also enhance readiness.

POVERTY: The clear connection between poverty and academic achievement must be addressed. Raising the state Earned Income Tax Credit and strengthening family supports will improve achievement. Parents in low-wage jobs with minimal benefits need family-friendly policies at work and in government programs.


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…)

Children thrive when parents succeed

Roughly half of Michigan’s young children ages 0-8 live in low-income families where meeting basic needs is a daily challenge.

Living in a financially stressed family during childhood has a long-term impact on education and employment. A child who spends the critical early years in poverty is less likely to graduate from high school and remain employed as an adult. To be more effective in assisting these families, public and private programs need to address the needs of both parents and children. (more…)

Maternal and infant risks in Michigan’s legacy cities

Roughly one of every four children in the state lives in one of Michigan’s legacy cities located across the southern half of the state’s Lower Peninsula. These legacy cities, once economic and social powerhouses, are now, in many cases, struggling with population loss and high unemployment.

Perhaps, not so surprising, risks to maternal and infant well-being are generally worse within these cities than the out-county areas in the counties where they are located.

The latest analysis of Right Start in Michigan, an annual report from Kids Count in Michigan, examines eight indicators to assess maternal and infant risks across the 15 so-called legacy cities. Only Ann Arbor, which has actually thrived in the new post-industrial economy, shows lower risk on almost all indicators than the out-county. (more…)

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