MLPP Blog: Factually Speaking

From first generation college student to social justice warrior

Added October 26th, 2016 by Janice Mendoza | Email This Entry Email This Entry
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.

During my seventh grade year, my mother made the decision to move to Michigan. While I adjusted well to Hazel Park Junior High, I faced a different set of problems once I reached high school.

High school is supposed to be a time to prepare for college. I admit, I started off in Honors classes, but dropped all of them due to personal issues. Not one counselor was there to guide me. Living in a low-income area, I did not have the resources to be a competitive applicant to colleges and universities. My school only offered a couple of Advanced Placement courses, which I did not qualify for. During my sophomore year, Hazel Park High School started receiving assistance from the Michigan State University (MSU) College Advising Corps. With their help, I was able to get accepted into MSU on a system of academic probation.

As I walked across the stage to receive my high school diploma, I had an overwhelming feeling of uneasiness. I attended an institution that was on Michigan’s priority schools list. I knew I was not academically prepared to attend MSU in the fall. During the summer of 2014, I attended a seven-week summer bridge program, TRiO, which is designed to foster college readiness for first-generation attendees and students whose families are struggling financially. This made a major difference and I am proud to say that I am now thriving in my junior year because of my mother, myself and the help I received.

As my story shows, many people cannot simply “pull themselves up,” and it takes more than willpower to succeed in the United States. After gaining an understanding about the institutional barriers that prevent the advancement of communities of color and people facing poverty in Michigan and beyond, I am now an advocate for the allocation of resources to fix these problems. I have faced my share of hurdles and now want to help others who are in my shoes do the same. I am interning with the League because they understand what is needed to help all Michiganians succeed—such as access to child care, early learning, paid leave and healthy food—as well as the importance of diversity and inclusion.

— Janice Mendoza

SNAP: Fighting the long-term effects of hunger

Added October 18th, 2016 by Rachel Richards | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Rachel Richards

I admit I do not understand what it feels like to be truly hungry. Sure, I’ve forgotten my breakfast or lunch from time to time, but I’ve always been able to count on the fact that there would be food in my cupboards. I cannot imagine the short- and long-term effects of hunger.

Yet, for many Michiganians, and many children, hunger is still a real problem. According to a recent federal report, between 2013 and 2015, almost 15% of Michigan households struggled to put food on their tables. Nationally, this rate is higher among households with children.

snapThe good news is that for many Michigan residents with low incomes, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is able to help. And a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents the critical help that this program provides as well as explains the long-lasting benefits that are experienced by children that receive food assistance.

In Michigan, about 1 in 6 residents received SNAP benefits in 2015, with nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants in families with children. About 28% of Michigan children, and 32% of elementary-aged Michigan children, are served by SNAP. Average monthly benefits in 2014 ranged from $138 to $394, with households with children receiving the biggest benefit. However, this still only equates to less than $2 per meal per person.

Despite the modest amount, SNAP provides a huge benefit to households that receive it, especially children. Receipt of food assistance provides both an immediate and short-term benefit and can have long-lasting economic and health outcomes on children.

  • Economic well-being: Nationwide, SNAP helped keep about 10.3 million Americans out of poverty in 2012. In Michigan, 326,000, including 141,000 children, were kept out of poverty due to SNAP. Receipt of SNAP also helped lower food insecurity, and allowed households to put food on the table.
  • Child health: SNAP allows families to spend more on healthy food, which frees up other resources to spend on healthcare and other basic needs, like housing, heating and electricity.
  • Educational outcomes: Research is clear—access to an adequate, healthy diet is vital to educational success. SNAP participation can improve reading and math skills as well as increase the chances of graduating high school.

In Michigan, we could do more to make this program work for our residents. Michigan currently implements an asset test on potential SNAP recipients. While the intent was to eliminate the fraudulent receipt of benefits, all the test does is make it unduly burdensome for Michiganians undergoing economic hardship to claim much-needed benefits and punishes families for saving for emergencies, their children’s future education or their own retirement. This test should be eliminated.

In addition to the limitations from the asset test, many Michigan residents also lost vital food support when the state failed to find the funds necessary to continue the Heat and Eat program. Under this program, many Michigan residents were provided a small amount of heating assistance that maximized their food benefits. When the federal government changed its rules, Michigan stopped providing this benefit, and recipients lost an average of $76 in food assistance per month. An opportunity to fund this program was squandered by state lawmakers this year. But there could be another opportunity during the legislative lame duck session following the election.

It’s clear that SNAP has an immediate and long-lasting positive effect on the many Michigan residents that receive it. But the need to improve the program still exists. We can, and should, do more to help protect our most vulnerable Michigan children.

— Rachel Richards

It’s time to end racial inequity in education

Added October 13th, 2016 by Pat Sorenson | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Pat Sorenson

My father, a man of Norwegian descent who grew up on a small farm in southern Minnesota, was one of many beneficiaries of the GI bill. As part of the first generation in his family to attend college, with public financial support he excelled and launched a career as a professor of economics. The opportunity given to my father changed the trajectory of my parents’ lives and mine.

While ostensibly race-neutral, the G.I. Bill did not have the same effect on educational attainment for Black and White veterans after the war, in part because of admission policies that limited access to colleges and universities. As a result, a public policy that appeared to increase equality and opportunity actually did little to overcome consistent institutional barriers and inequities in access to education and housing for veterans of color.

The need for greater equity in educational opportunity is highlighted in the League’s recent publication—Race, Place & Policy Matter in Educationwhich was released in conjunction with the League’s October 10th forum that brought more than 400 concerned residents together in Lansing to discuss solutions to poverty and racial inequity in Michigan.

One lesson learned at the forum was that state and community leaders must openly and intentionally address the impact of public policies on racial inequities. While often used interchangeably, the terms racial equity and racial equality are not synonymous. To create equity in education in Michigan, we must move beyond policies that treat all students equally—despite their vastly differing circumstances—and provide the additional resources needed to overcome broader institutional barriers to educational achievement such as poverty, the lack of economic and educational opportunities for parents, and gross disparities in the application of discipline practices that have resulted in disproportionately high suspension and expulsion rates for African-American and American Indian students.

race-place-policy-matter-in-ed-graphic-1The consequences of failing to proactively address educational inequities are serious and will affect all Michigan residents. Michigan’s economy, and its ability to provide services to an aging population, depends on a strong, well-educated workforce—one that will be increasingly diverse. The facts are startling: children of color are 2 to 4 times more likely to live with parents who don’t have a high school diploma, and are much less likely to read proficiently by third grade or graduate from high school on time. And, African-American and Latino young adults are less likely to be college-ready or complete college.

The League supports and will work for policies that can create greater equity, including full funding of the state’s At-Risk School Aid program that provides needed funds to high-poverty schools, a two-generational education agenda that addresses literacy levels and educational achievement for parents and their children, more investments in high quality child care and early learning programs, and restorative justice practices that reduce the need for school suspensions and expulsions.

— Pat Sorenson

A student’s take on college debt

Added October 12th, 2016 by Carlos Rios-Santiago | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Carlos Rios-Santiago

Classes are underway again and it is an exciting time for students like me. We get to see old friends, take new and interesting classes, and experience the unique culture our campuses have to offer. However, there is a question that pesters us every waking moment, gnawing at us as we listen to lectures…“How the heck am I going to pay for this?”

At 17, with my only work experience being Burger King, I had to know EXACTLY what I wanted to do for my entire life and how I was going to pay for it. Both are equally daunting at that age. Naturally, when choosing what school to go to, cost was a huge factor. How students pay varies. Some of us might have some money saved up from minimum wage jobs, parents who are able to contribute, or scholarships that help ease the burden. Even so, many of us will struggle to graduate without taking out student loans that will saddle us with debt for the next decade or more of our lives.

gradcapsI went with Michigan State University (MSU), and am majoring in Economics and Public Policy. Let me tell you, it is NOT cheap. Every semester I face a cost of anywhere from $6,000 to $9,000 depending on the amount of credits I take, and it keeps rising every year. I am also starting my master’s in Public Policy at MSU, which costs even more. Keep in mind this is for an in-state student, living off campus. Out-of-state students living on campus face essentially double the tuition cost, and have to live on campus for the first year adding another 10 grand in room and board.

And I am not alone. The League’s recent report on higher education funding and student debt found that 62 percent of Michigan college students graduate with debt, averaging $29,450. It’s even worse for students and families of color.

In an ideal world all of us would be able to find a career-related paid internship or job that allows us to cover the full cost of tuition. However, those are elusive and highly competitive. So most of us pay through one of two ways—either work sporadic hours at jobs that can accommodate our schedules (typically a minimum wage position) or take out student loans. This is in conjunction with classes that last multiple hours every day and give multiple hours’ worth of homework, and a career-related unpaid internship (such as my current role as Kids Count Intern at the League) to improve our chances of employment upon graduation. At the end of the week, no matter which we choose, we are physically and mentally exhausted.

There is an alternate path worth mentioning, technical or vocational schools. It is an excellent alternative that is cheaper, often involving an apprenticeship with on-the-job training, and pays a good living wage once training is complete. This also provides you with a means to support yourself and go to university if you so choose. However, many of us do not even realize this is an option until we have already committed to a university and signed off on loans.

We face an increasingly competitive job market that demands high-skilled workers. Without a strong educational foundation, our opportunities are limited and the economy stagnates. It is essential that state government increase higher education funding to ensure all people have the opportunity to attain a post-secondary education without worrying about putting food on the table.

— Carlos Rios-Santiago

Top ten voting tips

Added October 6th, 2016 by Gilda Z. Jacobs | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Gilda Z. Jacobs

From the First Tuesday newsletter
Sign up for the newsletter and e-news

The election is a little more than a month away, and I hope you are all planning to vote on Tuesday, November 8th. Voting is one of the most important and effective things you can do to shape public policy.

Unfortunately, voting can still be challenging and intimidating for some. But it is your right, and I urge you to exercise it. Here are some tips that can make voting a little easier.

  1. Make sure you’re registered to vote. If you aren’t registered, you have until October 11, 2016, to register to vote.
  2. Find out where you vote and make sure your polling place hasn’t changed.
  3. Make a plan to vote. Thinking about what time of day you’ll go and how you’ll get there ahead of time makes you much more likely to vote.
  4. Don’t be late, be there by 8. The polls close at 8:00 p.m., but if you are in line at 8:00 p.m., you will be allowed to vote.
  5. You can view your ballot now.
  6. You can bring your kids to the polls. Don’t let a lack of child care prevent you from voting.
  7. Although still a little complicated, college students can choose where they vote—back home or at school.
  8. Bring photo ID…but you still have the right to vote without one. If you forget to bring a photo ID to the polls or do not have one, you are still allowed to vote by asking to sign an affidavit of identity.
  9. You may be eligible to vote absentee. If you will be out of town on Election Day or will not be able to make it to the polls because of illness, disability, or religious beliefs, you can vote absentee. You can also vote by absentee for any reason if you are age 60 years old or older.
  10. Individuals with a criminal record can still vote, including convicted felons who have served their time or those who are on probation or parole.

This election is extremely important. We are voting for our next president, our federal, state and local elected officials, and for southeast Michigan residents like myself, we’ll be voting on a new regional transit proposal to connect Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties (the League is urging a “yes” vote).

In addition to using these tips to prepare for Election Day, I also encourage you to use the League’s candidate questions to engage with your candidates and inform your vote this last month. Democracy is the bedrock of our country and voting is a right that women and people of color fought hard for. Do not take voting for granted or let anyone convince you that your vote doesn’t matter, because I assure you it does.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

Going to college and hoping not to get into debt

Added September 28th, 2016 by Peter Ruark | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Peter Ruark

This time of year is when a rite of passage for many parents takes place: dropping off a child at a college or university dormitory for the first time and saying goodbye. My wife and I took part in that ritual a few weeks ago with our daughter, Sophia.


Sophia Leaving for College

For most students, it is an exciting milestone. But many likely also feel a twinge of anxiety: will my degree enable me to pay off my student loans on time?

The League recently took a look at university tuition, student debt and financial aid in Michigan in our Back to School Report. We found that tuition more than doubled at nearly all Michigan universities since 2003, and that Michigan’s average university tuition is sixth highest in the nation. (Michigan Community college tuition, however, is in the bottom half of states.)

We know this is due in part to the fact that state funding for public universities has declined by 30% since 2003 after adjusting for inflation—a slow privatization of our public university system. Tuition now makes up the majority of funding (69%) for university operating expenses, whereas up through 2003 state support provided most of the universities’ funding.

Compounding that problem is that financial aid in Michigan seems stuck in the 20th Century. Michigan ranks 30th among states in awarded need-based aid dollars per full-time equivalent undergraduate student, failing to keep up with rising tuition. Michigan also no longer gives financial aid to students over age 30 to attend community college or public university, despite the fact that older students make up an increasing share of the overall student body.

Not surprisingly, rising tuition and weak financial aid have resulted in 62% of 2014 Michigan college graduates having debt, with their debt averaging $29,450, the ninth highest in the country. Student debt tends to be even higher for students of color.

The League would like to see Michigan policymakers be proactive in reversing these trends. Let’s start by:

Restoring the state funding that has been cut from public universities, coupling significantly increased funding with stronger tuition restraint or tuition reduction requirements.

Making need-based financial aid grants available to older students again by bringing back the Part- Time Independent Student Grant that was cut in 2009.

Implementing a state Work-Study program that subsidizes academically relevant work for low-income adult students while paying a livable wage.

Supporting policies that can help alleviate hardship for low-income students by permitting them to receive cash or food assistance or subsidized child care.

For further information and more policy recommendations, please see our newly released paper Back to School Report: Rising Tuition and Weak State Funding and Financial Aid Create More Student Debt.

— Peter Ruark

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

From the First Tuesday newsletter
Sign up for the newsletter and e-news

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.

Next Page »