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

Lack of support with child care costs leaves families struggling

Mallory Boyce

Mallory Boyce

Ever since my junior year of high school, I’ve worked at a child care center in the Grand Rapids area, my hometown. This means that for the past four summers, I’ve spent up to 40 hours a week surrounded by 60 to 75 mostly happy school-age kids. My daily tasks include playing all types of tag games, braiding hair, teaching conflict resolution, and insisting that Band-Aids are of no use unless one is actually bleeding. All of that, plus two free snacks a day? Not a bad gig.

In the noise, fun and controlled chaos of the day-to-day work, it’s easy to forget what my job means for my kids and their families. As a recent report by the League discusses, child care is important as a tool for both educating young children and allowing parents to contribute to economic development.

I am most often reminded of this significance during small talk with people I have only just met, like the woman cutting my hair, a coworker at a second job, or anyone else who might ask what I do for a living. If whoever is doing the asking happens to be the parent of young children, more often than not they wonder about the weekly price for a child of whatever age at the center where I work. I’ll give them a quick estimate, which has always been met with a sigh and a brief lament on the high cost of child care, the stress of trying to balance work with family life and general frustration with the system as a whole.

Kids at play snipTheir frustration is legitimate. While child care is essential for most working families, its cost can often be debilitating. Child Care Aware’s 2016 report on the price of child care in each state found that the price of center-based child care for two children in a family with married parents was 22% of Michigan’s median income for that family type. Lower that family’s income to the poverty line and the same care takes up 91% of their income. Infant care eats up nearly 50% of the median income for single parents, with care for two children coming in at 86%.

The League’s Making Ends Meet in Michigan report shows the cost of child care for every county, and it is a significant expense for families in every corner of the state. Such a large portion of a family’s monthly budget going toward child care leaves little left over for other essentials like housing, food and transportation.

Even with the eligibility threshold for receiving subsidized child care being raised from 125% to 130% of the federal poverty level in Michigan’s 2018 budget, Michigan’s threshold is still among the lowest in the nation. As of 2015, the Child Care Development Fund’s Policies Database Book of Tables showed only three other states with eligibility thresholds below 130% of the federal poverty line, with the majority of states’ thresholds ranging from 150% in South Carolina to 315% in North Dakota. With 22% of the state’s children living in poverty, Michigan can’t afford to be trailing the rest of the nation when it comes to providing affordable child care to families with low incomes.

There is much to strive for when it comes to ensuring that Michigan’s working families have access to affordable, quality care for their children. Further increasing the eligibility thresholds for receiving help with child care expenses and otherwise working to ensure that Michigan’s children are well taken care of will help craft both strong families and a strong workforce, bringing us one step closer to a Michigan where all children thrive.

— Mallory Boyce

Helping women helps children

I’ve always been interested in how our society treats women. Women are impacted negatively in almost every sphere of their lives: social, personal, economic, professional. Women are less likely than men to be in the labor force, and more likely to live in poverty. And it’s even worse for women of color who face a number of institutional barriers.

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about how women are affected in policy: maternity leave and child care policies in the Trump budget that benefits the rich, the American Health Care Act’s negative affect on women, access to equal pay … and the list goes on. All of these policies that impact women usually have consequences—positive and negative—for our children. If women can’t afford healthcare, housing and basic necessities, it’s often children who suffer. We can only work to help our children through the equal support of their mothers.

Kids mom brushing teethData shows that a family’s struggles are a child’s struggles. In Michigan, 22% of our children are in poverty, 54% of third graders aren’t reading proficient, 9.1% have dropped out of high school and 15% live in households that were food insecure in the past year. The average median income for Michigan families with children is $61,600, and for Black/African-American households that number is less than half: $27,200. Ten percent of children live in extreme poverty, and 24% of Black/African-American children experience extreme poverty. All of these factors of children’s well-being are directly influenced by parents’ economic standing.

Parents often face significant obstacles in their daily lives. And when families can’t afford to provide food or buy school lunches, don’t have reliable forms of transportation, or have to work multiple jobs during teacher office hours, students experience challenges outside their control.

If you want to help children, you have to help the people in charge of them: parents. And often in cases of poverty, their mothers. Fifty-two percent of Michigan children living in one-parent (mother) households are in poverty.

Women and families need to be fully supported if they’re going to be successful and if we’re going to have a successful society. Our government needs to accept responsibility for better supporting our families and our children.

My experience as a woman, and as a child in a household with income instability, pushed me towards policy and political science, because disadvantaged and vulnerable people need to be heard in our world and our culture. I couldn’t ask for a better place to work. The League works tirelessly to improve the economic security of those living in Michigan, and to improve the lives of children.

To take care of children we must take care of their families.

As a new member of the League, this is why I do the work that I do. As a data lover, I hope to help inform work that improves the lives of kids, mothers and all families in Michigan.

— Harriet McTigue

Philosophy, career changes and granola bars: How kids can inspire our choices

It’s hard for high school teachers like me to motivate teenagers, but I’ve found that—surprisingly—good old philosophy always gets them talking and thinking.

I start with Plato’s cave, delve into some Nietzsche, and touch on Camus. During one unit, I explain to my students Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The lesson starts simply enough: I draw a triangle on the board and explain the concept. I show them that if we don’t have shelter, if we’re hungry, if we’re cold, we can’t move up the hierarchy.

As the lesson continues, I watch. The students begin to look around the room. I can see, suddenly, a bit of empathy. A bit of compassion. They realize that kids who may struggle academically or socially are likely facing much deeper problems outside the classroom. Maybe the girl who doesn’t say much in class is financially supporting her siblings. Maybe the boy who doesn’t hand in homework is hungry. Maybe the student who has trouble keeping friends has been moving from couch to couch, without a permanent home.

I know the power of understanding Maslow’s Hierarchy because it is one of the most impactful lessons I have learned. It gives me a helpful lens to use when I deal with frustration in the classroom. It allows me to feel compassion and to understand when kids fall asleep in class, or when they don’t finish homework. It’s the reason I keep a box of granola bars in my desk. The reason I’m willing to extend a deadline or stay after school to work with students. And this year, it’s the reason I feel called to leave my classroom.

Maslows Hierarchy 525x326This choice may seem counterintuitive, but I promise there’s a purpose. When I saw that the Michigan League for Public Policy was hiring a communications associate this spring, I realized it was a chance for me to make a difference in kids’ lives outside my classroom walls. While teaching provides incredible opportunities to impact children, we are not often able to help them meet their most basic needs. I’ve struggled with this for years, and I realized that leaving the classroom might be the best way for me to make a difference to the children in my classroom.

This new role with the League will be the best of both worlds. I can still be with my students each day as I teach part time, but I will also be able to help the League fulfill its mission of addressing poverty and creating economic opportunity for all Michigan residents—especially our kids. I will still be ready with granola bars and hugs at school, but I’m eager to help our state’s kids meet their needs beyond that realm. I am so grateful to be part of the work being done here.

— Laura Millard Ross

Michigan continues to lag behind nationally in outcomes for kids

Data point after data point seems to demonstrate clearly that we are failing to educate our children in Michigan. We know the importance that education has to achieving long-term economic security. Education levels also impact health and other outcomes over time. And poverty, health and communities have an effect on how well kids are able to learn. This means that our policies should recognize that our educators alone cannot improve the system or outcomes, and that policies need to support our teachers and schools along with their partners in helping kids to reach their potential.

infographic 2.pub - PublisherKids living in poverty or with low incomes also face a number of challenges. Of fourth-grade students whose families have low incomes, 84% were not proficient in reading compared to around 60% of students whose families were not low income. Where children live and attend school can also impact their outcomes. Albeit reading proficiency is not much better, but fourth-graders attending schools in suburban areas tend to have better rates of proficiency compared to students in city, town and rural communities.

Also impacting child development and outcomes, like education, are the notably high rates of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Michigan ranked 41st in the 2017 KIDS COUNT Data Book with 17% of kids living in areas with concentrated povertya worsening trend from 2008-2012. Even more disturbing are the racial disparities in the data: Michigan has the highest rate of concentrated poverty in the country for African-American children and top five highest for Latino kids. Children living in high-poverty communities and attend schools located in these areas are likely to have limited access to resources or parks and recreation and be exposed to more crime and violence. These adverse childhood experiences are not only traumatic to child well-being, but carry into adulthood. Michigan must invest in communities.

What does this mean for our kids who are growing up in an evolving and competitive global economy?

Schools with larger numbers of students with low incomes struggle to help their students overcome many of the barriers their students face and experience every day—and they cannot be expected to improve educational outcomes alone. Recent investments in the At-Risk program—an equitable approach to target resources in high-poverty schools—and in child care are moves in the right direction. Programs like Communities in Schools, Pathways to Potential and before- and after-school programs are great examples of addressing the whole child and family to help kids thrive and need to be expanded. And, using a cradle to career strategy through the use of programs like home visitation and adult education are critical.

Our educators, however, are the foundation for our kids’ learning and they must be supported. Recent moves by the Legislature to “reform” the teacher retirement system will do nothing to retain and attract some of our most important figures for our kids. This is a move backwards and will do nothing to improve the quality of education. The League will continue to support students, families, schools and communities as we work to get Michigan heading in the right direction on education.

— Alicia Guevara Warren

Department of Health and Human Services budget has bright spots, but misses many opportunities

For Immediate Release
June 8, 2017

Contact:
Alex Rossman
arossman@mlpp.org
517.487.5436

Positives include funding for “heat and eat” fix, Healthy Michigan Plan and healthy food incentives for Flint

LANSING—The Michigan League for Public Policy issued the following statement on the Department of Health and Human Services budget passed out of conference committee today. It can be attributed to Michigan League for Public Policy President & CEO Gilda Z. Jacobs.

“Health and human services have always been a focus for the League, especially in the context of the major cuts to federal programs that the president has proposed. Using our human services budget priorities as a scorecard, today’s legislation is mostly a draw.

“One of our focal points since last year’s budget has been fixing ‘heat and eat’ to secure additional food assistance for hundreds of thousands of Michigan families, seniors and people with disabilities, bringing in more federal dollars in the process, so we are very happy to see that continue on in this budget. Another positive in today’s budget is funding for double-up food bucks in Flint, which enables residents who receive food assistance to stretch their dollars further when purchasing healthy fruits and vegetables that help combat the effects of lead exposure. Another big win is that the state continued to fund the Healthy Michigan Plan that provides healthcare for 660,000 residents—though the shadow of the federal American Health Care Act that will eliminate it still looms.

“We are disappointed that there was no funding included today for the expansion of the Pathways to Potential program that places ‘success coaches’ in schools to identify barriers faced by students and their families and make appropriate referrals for needed services. The program is currently in 259 schools in 34 counties and has been proven to be effective, and we had hoped the Legislature would follow the governor’s recommendation to expand it to other parts of the state. There was also no increase for the clothing allowance for children in families that receive cash assistance, which is another area we emphasize each year and another area that we hoped would see an increase per the governor’s request.

“Pieces of this budget still reflect some of the growing sentiment in Washington that ‘poverty is a state of mind’ and health and human services for people who are struggling are the ideal places to cut. Our various reports and analyses show that many people in Michigan are working but still living in poverty and are one unexpected expense away from financial disaster. They are doing their best to get by but still need this support to survive. We will keep fighting to support all people in Michigan, especially our most physically and economically vulnerable residents.”

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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.

Protecting food assistance to preserve our future

While in Washington, D.C. last month for the 2017 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference (AHPC), I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. I was particularly fascinated by the exhibit on the Inka, who developed an expansive system to store surplus food for redistribution during hard times to ensure the empire’s survival. It was a timely experience since the AHPC was bringing together more than 1,300 anti-hunger advocates from all over the country just as the federal food assistance programs that so many American families rely on to survive—programs that have traditionally had bipartisan support—have come under attack by the president and congressional Republicans.

Conference presenters outlined threats to the mainstays of federal food assistance, most notably a proposal to convert funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from an entitlement structure to a block grant. Recognizing the interconnection of hunger, health and the economy, speakers also touched on feared cuts and structural changes to Medicaid and several tax credits that encourage work and empower families with low income to achieve economic independenceThemes that came up over and over again were the disproportionate impact of poverty and hunger on children, people with disabilities and people of color, and the disturbing effect that recent hateful, dishonest rhetoric and changes in immigration enforcement policy have had on access to public benefits by eligible immigrants and their children.

Under such gloomy circumstances, what can anti-hunger advocates to do to protect the programs that have lifted so many, enabling them to contribute to the American economy and society? How can we be effective when we’re on the defensive? Conference speakers and attendees alike spoke of the power of storytelling and shared values in framing statistics in a way that humanizes the frequently maligned recipients of food assistance and connects federal policy changes to the lives of real people in our communities and neighborhoods. (Note: If you receive food assistance and would like to share your story, please email our Communications Director Alex Rossman.)

Armed with lots of new information and propelled by the energy of my fellow conference attendees, I was proud to join a well-organized group of Michigan anti-hunger advocates in visiting nearly all of the members of the Michigan congressional delegation to educate them about the impact of federal nutrition programs on their constituents’ lives and the critical need to protect the funding and structure that make these programs so effective.

As the Inka wisely recognized, a robust nutrition assistance program isn’t merely charity to people having a tough time, it’s an essential investment in the nation’s future. At this critical time in our history, it’s vital that stakeholders from all sectors, ranging from anti-hunger advocates and human service providers to the healthcare and agriculture industries, band together to defend the food programs that help today’s children grow into tomorrow’s parents, workers and leaders. To get the latest news and find out how you can get involved in the federal fight against hunger, check out the Food Research and Action Center.

— Julie Cassidy

From first-generation college student to social justice warrior

Janice Mendoza

Janice Mendoza

As a child, my mother always motivated my brother and I to achieve through public education. In her heart, she knew that being educated would be the only route that we would have out of poverty.

As a kid in elementary school, I faced two main challenges: 1) English was not my first language, and 2) my mother’s lack of education prevented her from being able to help me with my academics. Living in a predominantly Mexican American community in San Bernardino, California, my teachers faced extra pressures in aiding my development. I found myself falling behind due to my inability to complete homework assignments. For a while, my brother who is one year ahead of me held the responsibility of trying to teach me various subjects. Finally, I received an invitation to participate in an after-school program to address my needs. (more…)

A leaguer for life

By Sharon Parks, Former President and CEO of the League

My hubby and I recently moved from the home we had been living in for nearly 35 years. We downsized somewhat and now have a lovely house that fits our lifestyle. It’s a home that we will gradually make more personal over time. Our former home was where we raised our kids. We made many, many changes over the years—each one changing the house for the better.

That’s not unlike the organization where I spent 34 years of my work life—the Michigan League for Human Services, now the Michigan League for Public Policy. In retirement, I haven’t lost touch with the League. I have lunch often with staff who, over the years, have become good friends. I follow the League’s work and share it on social media. I am always proud when I see the League quoted in the media. (more…)

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