Congress has chance to help Michigan families

September 14, 2010

Congress is returning from its Labor Day break this week with a number of key issues before it. In the coming days, Congress will make decisions on tax credits, child nutrition and cash assistance for needy families—votes that will directly impact families in Michigan.

In the midst of mid-term elections, the issue of which tax credits should be extended is receiving a great deal of attention. There are two tax credits directed at low- and middle-income families that were expanded under the Recovery Act to provide further tax relief.  

Without action by Congress to extend these tax credits, many families in Michigan will receive smaller refunds during these difficult economic times.

Twenty-five organizations here in Michigan have called on our congressional delegation to extend the Recovery Act changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Making these credits permanent will encourage work and will help low- and middle-income families.

The U.S. House is also facing a vote on Child Nutrition Reauthorization.   A bill pending before the House includes many important improvements to food programs for our children. These programs are a critical part of the safety net and provide vital resources to address child hunger.

A letter sent by 15 Michigan children’s advocates organizations calls on House members to support the House version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. The ill-advised Senate version funds the Child Nutrition Reauthorization with a future cut in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to low-income households. Raiding one food assistance program to fund another is not acceptable.

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund was created in 2009 as part of the Recovery Act. It has provided additional support to families here in Michigan during these challenging economic times. The fund, and its benefits, will expire at the end of September without action by Congress.

Understanding the ongoing need for the TANF Emergency Fund here in Michigan, 44 organizations have called on our Senators and our House members to extend this fund and its critically important benefits.

In the coming month, in particular, we will be looking to the Michigan Congressional Delegation to support policy and programs that will continue to assist Michigan families and will also help local and state economies.

— Karen Holcomb-Merrill


Sandbox Party: An election year for kids

August 24, 2010
Photo of Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Thursday, the Sandbox Party will hold its conference to mobilize a broad range of stakeholders to support a coherent system of early care and education in Michigan.  The League is proud to be a supporter of this important event, designed to draw candidates’ attention to the needs of children.

An early care and education system would assure that children are born healthy; that they thrive and develop on track without suffering from untreated health conditions or avoidable developmental delay;  that they enter the K-12 system ready to succeed; and that they can read proficiently by the end of the third grade.

This goal is also the very first  strategy recommended  in the Early Warning report (pdf) recently issued by the Casey Foundation. It presented four recommendations  to increase the share of fourth graders proficient in reading.

In Michigan (pdf) only three of every 10 fourth-graders could read proficiently by the fourth grade, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Children who can read proficiently by fourth grade are prepared to learn by reading as they advance academically.  Those without at least a modest skill level will be at high risk of being retained in grade and dropping out of school.

In reality all of us are stakeholders in this Sandbox effort as the state struggles to move forward economically and to increase the educational attainment of more residents so they can compete in the global economy.  By 2018 estimates suggest that two of every three jobs in Michigan will require training or education beyond high school.   

Right now we’re still trying to make sure more youth complete their high school education, particularly low-income and minority youth.  The first step to reaching that goal will require making sure that more children have what they need in early childhood to prepare them to be lifelong learners. 

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell


Helping kids feel good about themselves

August 20, 2010
Photo of Judy Putnam

Judy Putnam

With the start of school just a few weeks away, many families are planning shopping trips to get the right outfits for that important first day of school.

Thanks to a state program, some 157,000 children in Michigan’s poorest families will be able to join the annual back-to-school shopping ritual.

Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed announced Thursday that children in families receiving cash assistance (FIP grants) will receive $79 per child the first week of September for the children’s clothing allowance.

“It’s designed to help children feel good about themselves in going back to school,’’ Ahmed said at a press conference.

That is a little less than last year ($84 per child) but it will go a long way in buying shoes, underwear, and new or used clothes for the new school year.

The League has advocated for the clothing allowance for many years. We agree that all kids deserve a good start at the beginning of the school year. Many of us can recall the excitement that accompanied the new outfit, new shoes and a spanking new pack of Crayolas.  

It’s important that all children get to partake in that excitement, but it’s especially true for disadvantaged kids, who are at high risk of falling behind and dropping out.

As the Legislature and governor try to finalize the budget for the year starting Oct. 1, such items as the clothing allowance are in ongoing jeopardy. The governor called for unspecified cuts of $50 million in next year’s Department of Human Services budget to try and balance the budget. That came after the Legislature resisted her ideas for new revenue, including a reasonable plan to reduce the sales tax but expand it to services.

The state budget is a complicated document that’s developed in a complicated process but sometimes our choices become clear and simple, such as making sure that all kids have a good start and decent clothes as the new school year commences.

— Judy Putnam


Getting health reform right the first time

June 29, 2010

Jan Hudson

Policymakers in Michigan will soon have key decisions to make as health reform implementation progresses. Will they choose to do it right the first time, or follow their current strategy of remedial public policy?

When programs require a financial investment, policymakers say the state has no money to invest, and yet there are always funds to cover remedial services. Will the current approach of cutting programs in the name of fiscal restraint only to fund those necessary services in higher-cost settings be their guide?

For example, children are eligible for Medicaid or MIChild, but are not aware or enrolled because outreach funds and efforts have been eliminated. They are then treated in hospital emergency rooms instead of doctors offices. Or, Medicaid services are eliminated “to save funds” and untreated illnesses become life-threatening, resulting in intensive care stays that could have been avoided.

Early childhood and education programs have been cut or weakened through continued state disinvestment. A Casey Foundation report ranks Michigan ranks 34th among the 50 states in children who are proficient at reading by the end of third grade. Colleges then spend considerable time and cost on remedial education to correct the deficiencies.

Community mental health services are inadequately funded and were severely cut in this budget year. This means services are not provided until a crisis occurs, resulting at times with a person entering the corrections system. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy recently called for more aggressive mental health, preschool and drug treatment funding.

Federal health care reform presents the opportunity to make dramatic changes in the health care system and the way it’s delivered, defined and funded. A key question is: Will policymakers take advantage of these opportunities — pass needed legislation, and provide the necessary funding and staff for a successful implementation, or will they try to “do more with less” and skate by on the cheap?

If policymakers choose the short-sighted approach in the name of fiscal restraint  then we cannot expect to see the full potential of improvements to the current systems and health outcomes. It is critical that they acknowledge the need for additional resources and supporting public policy so that health reform implementation can be done right the first time.

We can pay now, we can pay later – or both. Will health care reform be more of the same, or will it be implemented right the first time?

— Jan Hudson


Tax break for working poor

June 15, 2010

Peter Ruark

In a Factually Speaking post on Feb. 22, I wrote about the federal Child Tax Credit and how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act lowered the minimum household income level from $10,000 to $3,000.

This change has helped many very poor families in Michigan qualify for the credit, and Congress must make the change permanent. Without such legislation, the minimum eligibility level for the Child Tax Credit will jump to $12,850 next year. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has just released a paper showing that failure to make the change permanent will result in a loss or reduction of the credit for the families of 477,000 urban and suburban children in Michigan and 106,000 rural children.

The reduction for some families comes about because the tax credit is phased in at the low end of the income eligibility scale. Currently, families with two children with household earnings between $3,000 and $16,333 receive a partial credit based on their income. Families who earn more than $16,333 (but less than $70,000 if they are one-parent families and $140,000 if they are two-parent) receive the maximum credit of $1,000 per child. 

If Congress does not make the $3,000 threshold permanent, families earning less than $12,850 won’t receive a Child Tax Credit at all, and families earning less than $26,183 won’t receive the full $1,000 amount.

As with the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, much of the money families get back for the federal Child Tax Credit gets spent in their own communities, helping local businesses and stimulating the economy. That is why this tax credit expansion was passed as part of the Recovery Act.

If you feel comfortable calling your representatives in Congress, you might want to pick up the phone and ask them to stand up for low-income working families in our state. You can find your representative’s office phone number here.

— Peter Ruark


Reading before fourth grade matters

May 18, 2010

Judy Putnam

Children who cannot read by the end of third grade cannot succeed. As they get older, they tend to drop out of school, pushing good-paying jobs beyond their reach. We’re writing the scripts of their lives by the age of 9 and they don’t have happy endings.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new national KIDS COUNT report, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters is out today, and it’s a must-read reminder about the importance of reading by the end of third grade.

The report’s major message is that children are learning to read until the ages of 8 and 9. After that they read to learn. Children without that essential skill quickly fall behind.

Michigan does not look good in this report. We rank 34th among the states on reading proficiency among fourth-graders as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That’s a rigorous test given in each state to a sample of students. 

In Michigan, 70 percent of fourth-graders tested were not considered proficient. That compares with 68 percent nationally. In addition to average scores, we have large huge gaps by race and income. 

Michigan, Wisconsin and Louisiana had the worst ranking in the country among African American students with 91 percent not considered proficient in reading. In Michigan 64 percent of white students are not proficient.

Another large gap is the difference based on income. Among low-income fourth-graders, 85 percent were not proficient. Among higher-income peers, only 60 percent were not proficient.

Early childhood opportunities, good health, safe communities, good schools and teachers, quality child care, parents and grandparents reading aloud often to young children, early intervention for children with delays and good school attendance all play a role. For advocates interested in rewriting the story of the cycle of poverty, these early years offer the place to do that.

— Judy Putnam


78 cents on the dollar

April 20, 2010

Judy Putnam

For every dollar a male worker earns, a female worker pulls down just 78 cents.

That depressing fact is brought to you by Equal Pay Day. That’s today. It’s a day set aside to show how far into 2010 women must have worked (in addition to 2009 earnings) to earn what men earned in 2009.

In Michigan, the disparity is worse – women earn just 72 cents for every dollar and the state ranks 43rd in the country.

I recently attended a policy forum on this issue by the Michigan State University Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. The upshot is that decades after the feminist movement began pushing equal pay for equal work there is still a lot of work to do to make the workplace an equal opportunity place for women.

This is a critical issue for low-income families because so many are headed by single women. (See the League’s recent poverty paper for more information.)

Jason Palmer, a state labor market economist, said Michigan’s recent job losses have been concentrated in male-dominated fields (i.e. manufacturing) but the spinoff effect has impacted jobs filled by women.

In fact Michigan’s young women have the largest jobless rate gap compared with the national average. For women 25 to 34 years, 12.7 percent are unemployed in Michigan compared with 8.5 percent nationally.

Palmer reported that Michigan women are out of work four weeks longer than women nationally, and that many Michigan female workers are working part-time, but not by choice.

When race is considered along with gender, the pay gap grows. According to Louise Jezierski, associate professor at Michigan State University’s James Madison College, white non-Hispanic women working full-time, year-round, earned only 70 percent of the wages of white males working full-time and year-round.

But the gap is bigger for women of color. African American women (again working full-time year-round) earned only 64 percent of wages of African American men. For Hispanics, it’s just 56 percent.

Paulette Granberry Russell, who is a special adviser to MSU’s president on diversity issues, said too many girls drop out of high school, one in four, with higher rates for female students of color.

Ironically, women are achieving more than men when it comes to education – more women are enrolled in college than men. But significant numbers choose fields that pay less – picking non-science, non-technology, non-engineering and non-mathematics fields of study.

Granberry Russell’s solution? She says research shows we must address high school dropout rates and do more to encourage women to go into technical fields.

Let’s keep this in mind as debate on a cuts-only budget threatens to further chop funds for every level of education in our struggling state.

— Judy Putnam