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

Hardships hit children

July 28, 2010

Jane Zehnder-Merrell

The Michigan numbers in the just released national KIDS COUNT report reflected  a 36 percent increase in child poverty in the state between 2000 and 2008 and a ranking of 44th (with 1 being the best) for the relatively large percentage of children living in families where no parent has a full-time year-round job. In response to this report, Michigan citizens and legislators might want to review the findings in a recent study about the impact of hard times on children.

Children in families suffering from multiple hardships, defined as inadequate food, inconsistent access to utility service, and unstable housing, sustain long-term harm to their health and well-being, according to the report Healthy Families in Hard Times. Children’s HealthWatch found that each of these hardships elevate the risk of poor health, hospitalizations, iron deficiency anemia, and developmental delay among children in these families. Children with severe hardship were at more than double the risk of developmental delay compared with children in families with none of these material hardships.

The ten-year study found that one-third of low-income families experienced no hardship while the majority (57%) suffered from moderate hardship, and 6 percent sustained severe hardship. Housing insecurity was the most pervasive—affecting roughly two of five low-income families compared with 27 percent with energy insecurity and one in five with food insecurity.

The impact of these hardships is real and profound for the affected children. Children who experience food insecurity were more likely to need special education services, mental health treatment, and remediation for low academic performance.

While the best solution for family economic security is a good job that can provide the income to meet material needs, roughly one-third of the state’s children lived in a family where no parent had a full-time year-round job in 2008. Children cannot wait for the economic engine; they are already on the road.

Until the economy rebounds, many families must depend on public programs to get through the current recession. The researchers found that many eligible families did not participate in available programs, but the health and development outcomes for children in those needy families who did were much better than for those who did not.

So in these hard times instead of cutting programs, curtailing outreach, and limiting access to programs the better approach might be to expand outreach, coordination, and access to programs that mitigate material hardship so that children who have been born during these hard times will have a chance to be ready for the new economy when it arrives.

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

Urgent! Improving literacy in Michigan

June 2, 2010

Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Last week over 50 literacy experts from throughout the state gathered at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center to brainstorm critical goals for a comprehensive literacy plan for Michigan.

The plan, which will be submitted for funding from the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program, must address the needs of children from birth through grade 12. Workgroups focused on the literacy needs of multiple populations, including English Language Learners and alternative education students, as well as issues in teacher preparation, certification and ongoing professional development.

This effort comes at an opportune moment as the need for a more highly skilled and literate workforce is becoming urgent in order to attract better employment opportunities to the state.

The literacy level of Michigan students is a concern as reflected in the recent report by the national KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report  sounded an alarm at the relatively small share—less than one-third of the nation’s fourth-graders—who could demonstrate proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test. Most children who cannot read by the end of the third grade continue to struggle with reading as high schoolers. They are also more likely to be retained in a grade or drop out.    

Although Michigan’s test results were not significantly different from the national average, they earned the state a ranking of 34th among the 50 states. Massachusetts, which ranked first among the states, had almost half of its students performing at or above proficient.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to develop and implement a state literacy plan to create cohesive policies to help all students achieve proficiency in reading, writing, and oral language. It’s worth noting that the very first literacy goal defined in the Massachusetts plan is to prevent the literacy achievement gap from starting. To that end a number of Early Education and Care initiatives have been launched for children, ages 0-5.

Michigan policymakers should take note of this emphasis on prevention and the importance of investing in young children and their families. Unfortunately they are dismantling such programs in their “cuts only” approach to the state budget.

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Vulnerable families have most to lose in undercount

March 8, 2010

Karen Holcomb-Merrill

I’ve seen the billboards, heard the public service announcements and have intellectually understood the importance of the upcoming census, but it wasn’t until I started to delve into the Michigan numbers that I really got it.  (See Hardest to Count, Most to Lose.)

Some of our most vulnerable populations here in Michigan really do stand to lose the most if they are not counted in the census. And ironically enough, they are the ones who are hardest to count.

Past experience shows that minorities, children, low-income folks and the unemployed are the most likely to be missed in the census count. And, if you are a child of color, you have the poorest chance of being counted.

There are a variety of reasons for this. These populations are more likely to move around, to live with others and to live in temporary housing. Kids living in larger households or with grandparents are also more likely to be overlooked. Those with lower education and literacy levels may have trouble understanding the census form. Some are fearful of the government, especially in this post 9-11 era.

Whatever the reason, substantial numbers of people here in Michigan will not be counted in the upcoming census. I recently learned that the U.S. Census Bureau actually designates certain areas as “hard to count” areas.

Apparently over 1.2 million people in our state live in hard to count areas. That’s just over 12 percent of the population. When you look at the hard to count areas in Michigan by race, the disparities are alarming. Among whites, 5.4 percent are in hard to count areas. In stark contrast, over 48 percent, almost half, of African Americans are in hard to count areas. And for Hispanics, it’s over 30 percent. No wonder minorities are missed at such a high rate, compared with whites.

So what’s really at risk here in Michigan? A look at the top 10 federal services and programs that use census data shows that, with the exception of highway planning and construction, they target low-income and vulnerable populations, including children and minorities. The big one, of course, is Medicaid, which provides health care for one in six people in our state. Other services include unemployment insurance, Head Start, and the State Children’s Insurance Program.

Arguably the need has never been greater here in Michigan. There is much at risk if people are not counted and if funding is not sufficient to meet the needs going forward, especiallyfor vulnerable families and children.

— Karen Holcomb-Merrill