League spruces up its look

September 21, 2010
Photo of Judy Putnam

Judy Putnam

The League is sprucing up with the launch of a redesigned website. It features new type, new art, new colors and new organization. We think it is an attractive, simple, easy-to-navigate site that we hope will quickly give viewers the information they seek. 

As Ari Adler, a social networking consultant told us last year, an organization’s website is the communications hub. It’s the very heart of the operation. The League is employing electronic and social media — Twitter, Facebook, blog, email, and e-newsletters — but those are tools that drive viewers back to our website where our core content is housed. Without a great website, it’s a little like dressing up for the prom with great accessories, but wearing an ill-fitting, out-of-date dress. 

No more. 

Our main work is now under the “Issues” tab at the top of the page. There you will find drop-down boxes that take you to the topics of Kids Count, Budget and Tax, Safety Net/Health, Work and Wages, Recovery Act and Our Presentations. 

The new site features the League’s blog, Factually Speaking, under a tab, plus a link and preview on the Home page. And the latest news items that quote the League or cite its work will also be on display on the Home page. 

The most pressing issues will be under “Issues in Focus” at the top of the home page, while everything else that’s new to the site will be under ‘What’s New,’’ also on the Home page. 

And, as always, feel free to use the “Contact Us” tab frequently. We are eager to answer your questions and share data about the lives of low-income children, their families and individuals in Michigan. 

Like many nonprofits, the League has had its share of technology challenges. For many years, the League used a site designed by in-house staff using a host that was free at the start-up in the 1990s.  

For the redesign, we were lucky to get help from a funder who put us in touch with Lisa Beers of Beers Design, who used a WordPress template to create the new look. We’re also moving to a local web host, Liquid Web.

We hope you like it.

— Judy Putnam


Unemployment rate’s untold stories

September 3, 2010
Peter Ruark photo

Peter Ruark

It’s Labor Day once again, and as Harry scurries about getting things ready for his annual family cookout, he tries to squeeze in a few moments of reflection on the state of labor in Michigan.

He brings this year’s Labor Day Report from the Michigan League for Human Services out onto the deck, and reads that Michigan has had the highest unemployment rate in the nation for 49 out of the past 52 months, and that the current unemployment rate is still more than 13 percent.

As he waits for the coals in the grill to heat up, he skims and realizes that 41 percent of Michigan’s unemployed workers—and nearly 50 percent of African American unemployed workers—have been unemployed for six months or longer.

Harry sips a Michigan brew and puts the meat on the grill, thinking about his friends and neighbors who were laid off, but were lucky enough to not be unemployed. The guy at church who got his hours cut to part time kept his job, to be sure, but has sure had a helluva time paying the mortgage.

He reads in the Labor Day Report that one-fourth of all part-time workers last year wanted to work full time but could not because of the economy. The unemployment rate doesn’t include these people like his church friend.

Harry thinks of his neighbors. One lost her job last year because the shop where she worked went out of business. She tried for the next several months to find another job, and finally gave up in frustration. She now stays home and volunteers at her children’s school, but hopes to look for work again in the future when the job market is friendlier.

Then there is the single mother across the street who had to stop working because she no longer has reliable evening child care, and the only jobs she can find are during the evening. She applied for public assistance, which is now her only means of support for her family. She uses this downtime to get some training at the local community college, so that when the economy gets better she will be able to find solid daytime work. Neither of these neighbors is counted in the unemployment rate.

The relatives finally arrive for the picnic, and Harry’s niece tells him how she lost her manager position at the box store and now works for a fast food chain earning only one-third of her former wages.  Harry shows her the Labor Day Report and tells her that her wages would not bring her family out of poverty.

She is glad that her husband has not lost his job, but is worried that if he does, she would not be able to support her husband and young daughter on her fast-food wages alone.  She is also not counted in the unemployment rate.

As folks eat their lunch and socialize, Harry’s brother mentions that he hopes next year’s Labor Day Report shows a decrease in long-term unemployment and in the share of workers who are part time for economic reasons. His aunt points out that the end of the report lists some things that Michigan could do better to support workers and their families, such as increasing funding for adult education and vocational training, modernizing the Unemployment Insurance system, and strengthening Michigan’s social safety net for those who don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

Finally, sensing the conversation is going to turn to MSU’s  opening football game, Harry reminds everyone that we live in a representative democracy and that people might want to consider calling their state legislators to urge them to take action on some of these issues.

— Peter Ruark

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

Surprise! Voters supported taxes

August 16, 2010

Sharon Parks

The August 3 primary election said a great deal about what voters care about, in addition to their preferred candidates for office. The election results sent a clear message that voters value public services, and they are willing to pay for those services.

While this shouldn’t come as a surprise to some of us optimists, an analysis by The Center for Michigan shows that voters overwhelmingly stepped up to the plate to pay for good roads, fire and police protection, services for seniors and libraries. 

According to one analyst, “People are finally starting to really feel the effect of government cutbacks.”

The Center for Michigan’s analysis showed the following: 

  • Voters approved 86 percent of the 623 ballot proposals affecting how much they would pay in taxes or fees.
  • Voters approved 96 percent of the requests to either renew taxes or restore rates that had previously been reduced.
  • Voters supported 69 percent of the proposals that were flat-out tax increases. 

These election results counter the noise from the Tea Party folks that the electorate is fed up, doesn’t value government, and is not willing to pay a dime more for government services. 

Our citizens aren’t stupid. They know what they need; they know what they value.  By in large, they want essential services continued in their communities even though the state will no longer pick up the tab.

There are other services, equally important, which have been cut and are likely to be cut further. The General Fund budget, with a deficit of at least a half-billion dollars or more, depending on whose numbers are used, is not yet resolved. Many more services are likely to be cut if the Legislature can’t agree on revenue solutions.

At that point, voters will be looking at cuts in higher education as they attempt to send kids to college, and cuts in Medicaid as they attempt to deal with their own medical issues or those of parents or grandparents.

There’s more — the state licenses and inspects day care facilities where our children and grandchildren spend time each week; they also license and inspect nursing homes where many of our family members reside. Those of us who eat out occasionally or often should take comfort in the fact that restaurants are also inspected. The parks and forests that we all enjoy are maintained at government expense — taxpayer dollars. 

Considering The Center for Michigan’s analysis, candidates should welcome the opportunity to talk taxes with voters. Let the voters know what’s at stake and ask whether they want to go without the services they are used to having. The answers may surprise more than a few hopeful candidates for state office. 

— Sharon Parks

Chronic conditions: Attacking our wallets

August 12, 2010

Jan Hudson

The Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation (CHRT) recently released a brief on the high cost of treating chronic conditions in Michigan. 

Annual spending for someone with a chronic condition can range from $3,800 to $38,000 more than for someone without a chronic condition. 

The brief reports that nationally 5 percent of the people with the most complex conditions account for 49 percent of U.S. health care spending, while 20 percent of the population account for 80 percent of total health care spending. 

Heart disease was by far the most costly chronic condition both nationally and in Michigan. Total annual spending per patient by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan in 2008 for heart disease ranged from $16,900 to $41,000.

These costs document the importance of good public policy and strategies to address chronic diseases – both their prevention and their effective management. Prevention programs have certainly not been a priority for Michigan policymakers in the last several years as funding for programs has been dramatically reduced and programs have been eliminated.

In FY2008, the Healthy Michigan Fund, a key funding source for prevention and health education programs, provided $26 million for programs.  By FY2010, the amount had been reduced to $11 million, and the FY2011 Senate-passed budget further reduces program funding to $5.9 million. 

Many of these programs are considered ‘nice, but not essential.’ Cardiovascular health programs have been cut by nearly 50 percent, diabetes programs have been cut by more than 60 percent, and smoking prevention programs have been cut by 30 percent. Michigan needs to reverse this trend in disinvestment. 

Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act provides many opportunities to develop new strategies and demonstration projects to determine what works best. Policymakers must be encouraged to fund these opportunities and to make these critical investments.

In addition, the Affordable Care Act requires new health plans, beginning on or after September 23, to provide recommended prevention services (e.g., screenings for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes) without any cost sharing by the patient.  In January, Medicare beneficiaries will have access to these recommended prevention services without any cost sharing.

Policymakers often talk about the need for personal responsibility in health matters, but people need the tools to be successful.  We cannot wait any longer to address the impacts of chronic disease.  As the CHRT brief notes, “chronic conditions are attacking our wallets,” particularly the state and the business community that pay for much of Michigan residents’ health care.

— Jan Hudson

How to achieve health equity

July 13, 2010

Karen Holcomb-Merrill

A Path Toward Health Equity, a recently released report from Community Catalyst, contains recommendations on how to strengthen community-based work to reduce health disparities.  The report focused on six states, one of which was Michigan. 

I had the opportunity to share my perspective on health equity work in Michigan, as the report was being developed.  Although it focuses primarily on specific recommendations about how to more effectively address health disparities, the report also contains some important information about the status of health disparities in our state.

The numbers serve as yet another reminder of the disparities that do exist.  Overall, 13 percent of those in Michigan are uninsured.  Among Hispanics, 24 percent are uninsured and among African Americans, 20 percent are without insurance.

Across the board, African Americans in Michigan die from preventable diseases at a much higher rate than whites.  African Americans and Hispanics have significantly higher infant mortality rates than whites in our state.  You can find more detail about these and other disparities in a League report on health disparities.

The Community Catalyst report proposes five strategies that could strengthen efforts at the local and state level to reduce health disparities.  They include:

  • Building and strengthening community-based organizations
  • Encouraging statewide health access groups to prioritize equity work
  • Building coalitions of community, state and national organizations
  • Connecting various stakeholders
  • Developing a disparities reduction/health equity policy agenda

We are already doing some of these things here in Michigan.  But the numbers tell us that we need to do better.  The League will continue to look for opportunities to play a role in reducing health disparities in our state.

— Karen Holcomb-Merrill