MLPP Blog: Factually Speaking

Want to keep and attract young talent? Vote yes for regional transit in Southeast Michigan

Added September 23rd, 2016 by Mario Gruszczynski | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Mario Gruszczynski

Every day when I came to work at the League this summer, I had to take two buses. I would walk just a few blocks from my house to Grand River Ave. in downtown East Lansing. I took a bus at 7:20 a.m. to the Capitol in Lansing, and then I would get off just in time to hop on a bus going to our offices in Old Town. I timed my commute pretty well and door-to-door it took me about 40 minutes to get to work. My commute home was slightly more difficult, mainly because there’s more traffic and more people using the bus system. I planned for about an hour to get home.

vote-yes-chart-1While my commute time was well above state averages, I’m extremely lucky to have a public transit system at all. Without these buses, I, a college student without a car, would have no viable commuting option.

But it could be a lot better. Sure, it may only take me about 40 minutes to get to work, but if I drove, it would take 10 minutes. And this is in Lansing, a city with one of the better public transit systems in our state. In Detroit, where buses are unreliable and limited in range, you end up with people like James Robertson, who walked 21 miles to commute to and from his job in Royal Oak.

I grew up in metro Detroit and remain committed to working in the communities that I call home. But we’ve really shorted ourselves by not investing in public transportation the way that other states with large metropolitan areas have. Policymakers have not kept up with economic and cultural shifts that require regional economies to be connected and accessible. While most other comparable metropolitan areas spend at least $175 per capita on public transit, we spend less than half of that in metro Detroit.

detroit-streetThe good news? Southeast Michigan voters now have the power to change that. On Tuesday, November 8th, voters in Wayne, Washtenaw, Macomb and Oakland counties will vote on a proposal that would bring regional transit to Southeast Michigan. The plan would bolster existing transit systems while adding new bus and rail that further connect our communities.

A robust and efficient public transportation system helps young people like me who rely on trains and buses to get to school and work. It helps seniors who are no longer able to drive. It helps families who can spend less time commuting and more time with each other. It helps businesses by bringing communities together, increasing the pool of qualified employees with reliable transportation. And while individuals will benefit from public transit, the real dividends will be paid to the region as a whole. That deserves a yes vote from everyone.

— Mario Gruszczynski

First day jitters teach me a lesson too

Added September 15th, 2016 by Rachel Richards | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Rachel Richards

My only child—a sweet, smart and independent little boy—started kindergarten this month. We did a special pancake breakfast, a new first day outfit and pictures, and then headed off to school where he quickly said goodbye and joined his class. I’d like to say that I held it together, but anyone who knows me could tell you I didn’t.

Yes, he was nervous. He didn’t like going to a different school than his friends, and worried about meeting new ones. He was nervous about before- and after-care. And he was worried about not having enough lunch. I try to tell him that kindergarten is awesome and that it’s great that he’s learning new things and meeting new friends, but I’m still worried too.

kids-raising-hands-upI’m worried he won’t have the same excitement about school and learning that I had. I’m afraid he won’t be able to keep up. Michigan’s standardized tests continue to show that our students are falling behind in many areas, resulting in changes to the curricula and assessments. I worry about the number of changes that my son will have to go through, and what ultimately these tests will show. And with skyrocketing costs of a college education, I worry about my ability to send him to whatever school he may want to attend.

However, at the same time, I know that I am fortunate.

Having to work, I was able to find and afford a child care program that put an important emphasis on early learning. Going into kindergarten, my son already knew colors, letters, numbers and animals. He could speak a little Spanish. And he could write a few words and add. All of this as a result of child care. There are many Michigan families that cannot afford high-quality child care, who must either not work or piece together child care through neighbors, friends or family. Rather than helping, state policies stand to make things worse.

As a parent, we strive to send our child to the best college we can. While my son was still very young, I started accounts with both the Michigan Education Trust and the Michigan Education Savings Program. These allow me to save now, to take the pressure off of paying for college when the time comes, and to hopefully prevent my son from being saddled with college debt.

I also can provide my son with things I believe should be common rights—clean water, a good public school system, enough healthy food to sustain him, and libraries and other enrichment programs. These basic needs are still not being met for too many kids.

Starting school has taught me a lot about why I do what I do. Parents shouldn’t have to choose between working and caring for their child. Children shouldn’t have to worry about whether their family can afford lunch. And paying for college should not be an insurmountable task. All families, all children, all Michiganians deserve a chance to succeed. And the state shouldn’t be making it harder for them to do so.

If we can all make it a little easier for those who are struggling, we will make life better for everyone.

— Rachel Richards

Back to school…with high costs and closures looming

Added September 7th, 2016 by Gilda Z. Jacobs | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Gilda Z. Jacobs

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As we enter September, I’m sure many of your households and neighborhoods are abuzz with back to school activity, and we at the League as are as well. As some League staffers are sending kids off to kindergarten and third grade, others are sending their first kids off to college.

college books and capBut our professional lives are hyperfocused on school issues right now, too, and for good reason. Despite education being universally embraced as the key to economic stability and a quality career, Michigan policies continue to put up barriers to academic achievement and college degree attainment, and it’s weighing heavily on us as both parents and policy analysts.

Instead of our usual Labor Day Reports on workforce issues, this year we decided to look at education. Released today, our Back to School Report, Rising Tuition and Weak State Funding and Financial Aid Create More Student Debt, reveals that state college costs have skyrocketed while state aid continues to wane.

Between 2003 and 2016, tuition more than doubled at all but one Michigan university and increased by more than 150% at several schools. Michigan’s average tuition cost was the sixth highest in the nation and second highest in the Midwest during the 2015-16 school year.

At the same time, the Michigan Legislature’s funding for higher education has gone down, as well as state financial aid. For many, that means a cloud of debt that hangs over students for decades. Of Michigan college students who graduated in 2014, 62% graduated with an average of $29,450 in student debt, the ninth highest average debt level in the nation. College debt is even higher for students and families of color, perpetuating academic and economic racial disparities.

While some students and families take on this debt as a necessary evil, others have to reroute their higher education plans entirely. Our Vice President Karen Holcomb-Merrill recently wrote about her “Little Sister” that graduated from high school and was going to be the first in her family to go to college. But shortly after that blog posted, Karen’s Little found out that she was not getting the financial aid she had expected, forcing her to significantly alter her plans for this fall.

For kids in K-12 schools across the state, they have their own uncertainty and fear this fall, with speculation that as many as 100 low-performing schools could be closed next summer.

While something must be done to address Michigan’s struggling public schools, these proposed school closures stand to particularly hurt low-income families and families of color, causing blight and dangerous communities, complicating transportation and work schedule issues, and even widening academic racial disparities.

September is supposed to be full of promise, of hope. But a torrent of debt for college-bound students and looming clouds of closure for K-12 kids are making it harder than ever for kids to learn and thrive. It’s high time for Michigan policymakers to think about the kids and grandkids in their own families and their own districts and send a strong message that they value education by investing in it.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

A leaguer for life

Added September 2nd, 2016 by Sharon Parks | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Sharon Parks

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.

Much like our former house, the League has changed considerably over the years, and all for the better. When I started at the League our funding came mostly through local United Ways. Now, the League is funded primarily by local, state and national foundations. The League has also joined several national networks that help inform and shape public policy across the country.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the League carefully monitored the budget and that continues to be a key focus of League analysis. We also tracked specific pieces of legislation that impacted poor and vulnerable people in our state. Over the years however, the League’s work reflected a “bigger picture” approach to public policy, as the League’s analyses helped policymakers to connect the dots between numerous policy areas, particularly revenues and expenditures. The League also reached out to state-level organizations that didn’t necessarily fall into the “social welfare” category, always a province of the League’s, and the League now works collaboratively with many groups for the betterment of our state and its residents.

One thing has remained a constant during my time with the League and since retirement: the excellence of the League’s board leadership and the competence of the staff. The League’s leadership is impressive and affords the organization a wealth of experience in many areas. The staff at the League always has been, and continues to be, nothing short of phenomenal! I marvel at how such an intelligent and dedicated group of people can be congregated in one organization.

Michigan faces many challenges. Too many of our children live in poverty; too many of their parents lack the skills and education needed to compete in the workforce. Our educational systems do not measure up to national and international standards; our infrastructure has been badly neglected.

One thing I know for certain is that the Michigan League for Public Policy will continue to be a force in the public policy debate over these critical issues, just as it has been for 104 years.

School closures slam door on low-income kids

Added August 26th, 2016 by Gilda Z. Jacobs | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Gilda Z. Jacobs

Schools are important cornerstones for communities, and the hasty and far-reaching school closures recently proposed will have a variety of adverse impacts on Michigan’s communities, teachers, families and kids. Earlier this week, I participated in a media roundtable with several school groups to draw attention to these concerns.


The League’s Gilda Jacobs joined Don Wotruba from the Michigan Association of School Boards, Ray Telman from Middle Cities Education Association and Chris Wigent from the Michigan Association of School Administrators at a media roundtable this week to discuss school closures and the potential impact on low-income communities and families of color.

While something certainly must be done to address Michigan’s struggling public schools, these proposed school closures, ranging between 10 and 100 schools, stand to cause more problems than they resolve. In fact, this move stands to further the racial and economic disparities that are currently rife in education in Michigan.

Many struggling schools are in urban and low-income areas and cities like Flint and Detroit that are already in crisis, and closing community schools will compound these problems. Families with more money can send their kids to private and charter schools in the same area, while low-income kids will be taken further from home and out of their environment.

This connection also exposes a budget issue, as state funding for at-risk pupils and school districts has been stagnant. In addition, state funding for support services for low-income families have also dramatically declined.

Parents and kids in these poor-performing districts will be forced to find other school options, often much farther away and in unfamiliar areas. In some districts, kids end up having to transfer to rival neighborhood schools, where their safety has been a huge concern, or to schools that are overcrowded themselves, also struggling academically and ill-equipped for a huge influx of new students.

School closures will put a particularly high strain on working parents, single parents and those with lower incomes that might not have viable transportation options—no school bus route, no public transit, one car or no car at all—to get their kids to school. Many parents don’t have the flexible work schedules to accommodate these new, longer commutes, either.

There are myriad factors that affect the health and learning of kids, and when a school closes, many low-income areas and communities of color lose other important programs housed in them, like pre-K programs, health clinics and more. Many schools also act as summer meal sites, with closures meaning less access to free, healthy food for local low-income kids.

These closed schools will likely stand empty, further hurting communities. They will be more than an eyesore—they will be dangerous sites that may still attract kids, as well as vandalism and other criminal activity. So much of a neighborhood or community’s value is tied in to the quality of schools available, and closed schools will also hurt property values and a community’s appeal.

These proposed closures are the latest in a long line of policies that have hurt families and kids of color and those with lower incomes more than anyone else. We need to be investing education and improving schools and working to improve race equity, not shuttering schools haphazardly and widening racial divides.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

For the nonprofit community, social media is more than likes

Added August 19th, 2016 by Chelsea Lewis | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Chelsea Lewis

Social media isn’t only about likes, despite popular belief. It isn’t about going viral or breaking a million followers. For the nonprofit world, social media is about interaction, education and creating a community.

Social media isn’t just a flashy trend that allows you to post what you had for lunch on Instagram. Instead it’s a powerful tool that allows conversations to take place all over the world, enables people to respond in real-time to life-changing events and allows us to connect like never before.

Social media is important to many industries, especially for those of us who work in the realm of advocacy.

We know working in the nonprofit industry—especially around public policy—that it’s tremendously important to engage fellow advocates and provide education to those who are looking for more information about our work or cause. This used to mean meetings—lots and lots of meetings. These face-to-face conversations are beneficial and allow us to start dialogues about issues that are critical to our work. We can spark an idea or even start to make changes in the lives of others.

But these interactions, these meetings take time, a large amount of resources and a lot of schedule juggling. Social media allows for that process to be streamlined. Personal interaction should never be fully replaced, but social media can be used to supplement those meetings.

In addition, it enables us to create a much larger and more diverse community. Social media allows nonprofit professionals to have these conversations and reach entire populations that traditionally wouldn’t attend an event or community forum. Thousands of individuals check their Facebook and Twitter feed daily; we have access to them through the touch of a keyboard.

Having a strong and engaged social media community is key to having success online. One post could reach thousands of people, which means your message and your cause could be seen by thousands.

Before jumping into the social media deep end of the pool, it’s important to understand which platform will be best for your nonprofit and consider a few other helpful tips.

While Facebook is the most popular social media website (as of the second quarter of 2016, Facebook had 1.71 billion monthly active users), it might not be the most effective. For example, Twitter has become particularly popular for news and real-time information, so you might want to live tweet an event. If you are looking for clothing or food donations, Instagram might be a better fit, as you can appeal to individuals through strong visual messages.

Many businesses are using social media to build their brands through visually stunning stories. The nonprofit community is full of personal and emotional stories that can describe our work better than a paragraph of text. Social media should be personal, just like the nonprofit industry.

Take the time to understand where your audience is located on social media and start a conversation with them, just like you would in a small group meeting. Take your conversations to the next level and engage with an audience in real time around the world.

So yes, while likes and follows are great (and encouraged), social media can be so much more to the nonprofit community. We hope you will continue to use it to engage with us. If you haven’t already, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

—Chelsea Lewis

Service benefits our communities and us!

Added August 10th, 2016 by Mary Logan | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Mary Logan

Like many, I enjoy the feeling of giving.

It likely began at a young age growing up in a family with four brothers and four sisters in which being aware of others’ needs was part of my daily life. I especially think of my mom who, despite raising a large family, always made time to volunteer, greet new neighbors and offer assistance. And she did so in simple ways and in a humble manner—never insisting or expecting that her children act accordingly. But her example was ingrained nonetheless, and resulted in the rest of us having a similar desire to reach out and help others.

That same attitude of giving is prevalent among my coworkers at the League. And in my 37 years working here, it doesn’t seem to matter who comes and who goes, the overall culture is that of a caring, giving staff.

You hear regularly about the work the League and our dedicated staff is doing at the policy level to enhance the lives of Michigan residents and families, but you may not be aware of other efforts we’re involved in.

donations haven houseOne in particular is our annual staff donation drive for Haven House—a vital organization in our Lansing community that provides emergency housing and support services for families with children. The shelter helps families who are homeless prepare for permanent housing by developing and promoting self-sufficiency, stability and financial responsibility. We have been proudly supporting Haven House and the families they serve for several years, and we do it during the summer months when service organizations are often in greater need and Haven House supplies run very low.

Most of the items we donate are used to create “Welcome Home” kits that are given to families when they move into their new homes. These kits include many necessary household items that cannot be purchased with food stamps.

The staff at Haven House is equally committed and passionate about helping others, and we are happy to do our part to support them. It’s always fun to see their delighted faces when we drop off our donations, and even greater to think about the families who will be using them. This year, Haven House Volunteer and Special Projects Coordinator Leah Weidner, who wasn’t there when we made the delivery, emailed later to say, “Just got in from a training and was so excited to see the hall lined with items . . . Thank you again and from the entire staff and families of Haven House. We’re so grateful to have you as a community partner.”

I feel very fortunate to be part of a team in which our leader, Gilda Jacobs, not only encourages staff to engage in community activities, but also allows time for us to do so throughout the year. While our work focuses on broad policy change, we also value community service and the great people and organizations who have made helping others their mission as well.

— Mary Logan

We need to narrow Michigan’s income gap

Added August 4th, 2016 by Rachel Richards | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Rachel Richards

It’s no secret—income inequality exists in Michigan. However, when nearly 1 in 4 kids still live in poverty in the state and when too many Michigan residents must cobble together multiple part-time jobs just to barely make ends meet, income inequality is a problem. And more must be done to lift our most vulnerable residents to help narrow the gap.

money 22x moreA new fact sheet released by the League begins to explore Michigan’s income gap, the issues it causes and what can be done to reduce the disparity. According to a recent report, Michigan is the 11th most unequal state in income in the nation, with its top 1% earning 22 times more than the rest of its workers. Over the past 30-plus years, income growth for top earners far outpaced growth of the bottom 99%. Since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, incomes for the top grew by over 26% while incomes for the rest of the state stagnated.

Income inequality is a much bigger and broader issue than simply the top compared to the rest of us. Income gaps exist regionally, between genders and along race and ethnicity lines. In Michigan, median incomes for full-time working women continue to trail those of men by nearly $13,000, and workers of color made $3 less per hour than white workers. These disparities exist regardless of educational attainment.

We need to fix income inequality. The income gap affects Michiganians’ abilities to pay for healthcare or save for retirement or a child’s college education. And while income disparities exist at the national level, Michigan can implement state policies to help narrow the gap including:

The League will continue to highlight this important issue in a series of fact sheets. Income inequality is a persistent and increasing problem in Michigan, hurting Michigan residents, communities and the economy, and state policymakers must do more to bridge the divide.

— Rachel Richards

Vote today! Our lives depend on it

Added August 2nd, 2016 by Gilda Z. Jacobs | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Gilda Z. Jacobs

Today is the primary election, a day that has a major impact on our Legislature and our state. That is why I want to implore all of you to VOTE TODAY.

As a former elected official at the state and local level, I have always appreciated the importance of voting—my political life depended on it! But I see its power even more heading up the League, because all of our lives depend on voting.

vote hereVoting shapes our policy landscape, as it determines who goes to Lansing—and to Washington—to fight on your behalf. Voting holds elected officials accountable for their stance on the issues you care about, and for their actions in office. But not voting also has an effect—and consequences, especially in the primary election.

Due to redistricting, the primary winners from the dominant party in your neck of the woods are usually all but guaranteed a victory in November. So, if you truly want to capitalize on your vote and make it count in the Michigan Legislature, today is the day to make it to the polls.

Polls are open today from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Not sure if you’re registered or where your polling place is? You can find that information here.

Here at the League, we have also put together some materials to help inform your vote on the issues that are important to you. Please use these materials below to see what’s going on in your community, and to hold candidates accountable on what they need to address.

20 Policy Questions for Candidates
Legislative District Fact Sheets
Kids Count County Profiles
Earned Income Tax Credit (By Legislative District) Fact Sheets
County Fact Sheets
Select City Fact Sheets
American Indian Reservation and Trust Lands Fact Sheets

Remember…today, our state policies are in your hands. Your vote is your power. Use it!

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

Michigan, 20 years after “welfare reform”

Added July 29th, 2016 by Peter Ruark | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Peter Ruark

It was 20 years ago, in 1996, that Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that transformed cash assistance from a federal entitlement program (meaning that all who meet the eligibility requirements receive a direct federal benefit) to a block grant through which states fund their own programs. The Family Independence Program (FIP) is Michigan’s cash assistance program that is funded by the block grant—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Unlike Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), TANF gave states wide latitude to set their own eligibility levels and work requirements. It allowed states to use federal funds for other things besides cash assistance as long as the expenditure fit within four general purposes of TANF.

Advocates were concerned at the time that transferring cash assistance to the state level would lead to a “race to the bottom” in which states would spend as little money as possible on needy families and push them into low-wage jobs that would not help them leave poverty. Some even within the Clinton administration warned that it would actually increase poverty.

As preparations begin for the reauthorization of TANF, the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities takes a look at the past 20 years and finds that “welfare reform” did not in fact help poor families in the way that it could have. Fewer families below the federal poverty line are receiving cash assistance and the benefits have eroded with inflation over time. Moreover, states in general have been spending only half of their TANF block grants on basic assistance, child care or work activities, with the other half going to other uses that fit within the four purposes of TANF (including supplanting state funding for popular programs with TANF funds).

blog 29_July_2016Immediately before the passage of the welfare reform legislation in 1996, 184,000 Michigan families received cash assistance and 88 families received benefits for every 100 families with children in poverty. In 2014, only 39,000 families in our state received cash assistance and the cash assistance-to-poverty ratio was only 14 to 100. By May 2016, the number of families receiving cash assistance fell even further, to 22,573 families.

Between 2001 and 2011, Michigan’s unemployment and poverty rates soared and Michigan had what was sometimes referred to as a one-state recession (Michigan led the nation in unemployment for four straight years). During that time, FIP caseloads remained flat overall and even decreased at some points, showing a serious inability to respond to very real need. Currently, a family must be at HALF the federal poverty line in order to begin receiving cash assistance through FIP.

Michigan’s monthly FIP benefit is also very low: only $492 per month for a family of three without any other income. A family of three can combine earnings with cash assistance only up to $1,183 a month, with benefits decreasing as the parent earns more money, but that still only brings the family to 74% of the poverty level.

Michigan also does not spend any of its TANF block grant on child care for families who are leaving cash assistance, making it difficult for such families to become economically self-sufficient. As a result, the child care subsidy is far lower than market rates, making it difficult for struggling families to find quality child care and putting their jobs (and perhaps their children) at risk.

Michigan can do much better with the $775 million it receives each year in federal TANF funds. While conversations go on at the national level about how to make TANF more effective in responding to need, Michigan has to have that conversation as well. A few good steps would be:

  • Increasing the cash assistance monthly benefit to a level that will bring families up to at least the federal poverty line if they are working full time.
  • Modify eligibility rules to enable more working families living in poverty to qualify for assistance.
  • Strengthen the child care subsidy to help working parents meet their children’s needs without risking losing their jobs.

— Peter Ruark

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