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New legislative session, new hope

I’ve always said it’s important to start off a new year with hope — hope can be a great motivator.

But, after the year we’ve had, it’s hard to find hope. And, quite frankly, we need a lot more than a “positive attitude” to take on the problems our state is facing. COVID-19 has devastated us. Over 12,500 lost loved ones. Over 341,000 lost jobs. Countless days of worry, anxiety and isolation.

Most of all, COVID-19 has exposed what many have known for some time: Michigan’s foundation is crumbling.

After decades of disinvestment and partisan politics, our state has forgotten the importance of giving our residents the solid ground that will continue to hold them up even when times are tough. That will provide kids with high-quality education and care, regardless of their race or the place they call home. That will ensure that the homes we live in, the food we eat, and the water we drink are safe. That we have access to the health care we need, no matter where we are in life. And that the people of Michigan don’t have to worry about making ends meet.

Today, 4.3 million people in our state are living in poverty or unable to afford basic needs. And COVID-19 has made those numbers even more staggering.

We have a lot to fix, and a lot to dismantle and rebuild. It’s a daunting job for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature, but we know they understand the importance of serving people, not politics.

So, in my search for hope in this new year, I’m focused on successes we can build on.

And we must remember not just to patch the cracks in our foundation, but to look carefully at policies and systems built on a history of white supremacy, tear them down, and rebuild anti-racist policies.

Here are a few of my hopes as we work toward creating a stronger state — together:

Hope #1: Strengthen economic security.

The Whitmer administration is committed to tackling economic insecurity with its Poverty Task Force, which is working to help coordinate the state’s efforts to lift Michiganders out of poverty. In the coming year, we hope to see improvements to Michigan’s cash and food assistance policies that currently are leaving far too many residents behind. It’s also key that the state increases funding for the Eviction Diversion Program (EDP) to meet the ongoing need for rent payment assistance.

Hope #2: Make health and health care a priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a host of concerns about how the nation handles health and health care, particularly when it comes to Black and brown residents. Michigan has taken a step in the right direction by creating a Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, and Gov. Whitmer’s racial bias training for health care professionals, which will begin to take shape this year and will hopefully bring about more equitable outcomes for health.

Along with efforts to reduce those disparities, it is critical that we protect state and federal funding for health care coverage for all Michiganders. Medicaid and the Healthy Michigan Plan have seen an increase in enrollees as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s important that we not only protect those options but strengthen them for the road ahead. We must do so because our health insurance system is so closely aligned to employer-based benefits, which doesn’t make sense when so many workers are out of jobs or considered “consultants.”

Hope #3: Boost outcomes for kids.

The stark contrast in quality of services for kids was a running headline as the pandemic forced shutdowns of schools and child care and left families in a major bind. But our state’s inequitable system — largely breaking along geographic, racial and income lines — is one that has needed rebuilding for years.

In 2021, we urge the Legislature to adopt a School Aid formula that is weighed by the number of students in poverty, English-language learners, and children with special needs. Until we target our funding toward the districts that need it the most, Michigan’s kids cannot thrive. Similarly, new child care funding should prioritize communities with the greatest need and least access to high-quality care. The League, along with its partners and over 950 Michigan families, advocates, researchers, government officials and service providers have worked on the Michigan Prenatal to Three (P-3) Policy Agenda, focused on child care and other benefits for young children. That work, supported by the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, will help lawmakers make the right decisions as they invest in our state’s children.

Hope #4: Work together.

We were pleased to see the Legislature take a refreshing bipartisan approach to tackle a number of pressing issues in 2020, with COVID-related policies like a broad relief funding bill and a water shutoff moratorium, as well as an array of positive criminal justice reforms that will help give a fresh start to many justice-involved Michiganders. We have hope that the new lawmakers heading to the Capitol later this month will see the benefit of working across the aisle and with the administration to achieve results for the people they serve.

So, as we enter this new year together, we must do so with an incredible balance of hope and tenacity. It’s true that our current situation is dire, but not impossible to fix.

All the more reason for us to come together and do the hard work of rebuilding our state’s foundation.

We must take this opportunity to closely examine the flaws and structural failures so that we can give every Michigander the chance to start on solid ground.

Gilda Z. Jacobs is president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.

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