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Steps to tackle economic inequity

As an organization that has worked to promote economic security in Michigan since 1912, we know how pervasive and persistent poverty is. We also know that our work is most important in times of crisis.

Our organization’s role and goals really crystallized in the 1930s, in response to the Great Depression and the increased needs of our fellow Michiganders. Nearly a century later, the League’s work was also vital during the Great Recession, using research and analysis to identify the state and federal policies at the root of our economic struggles and the ones that could help get our workforce, economy, and state budget back on track.

And, as it has been for us all, personally and professionally, the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic crisis have become another critical inflection point for our organization and the people we serve. With a public health crisis at hand, the increased strain on our government safety net programs, and COVID-19 exposing longstanding inequities for people of color and residents with lower incomes, our work has felt more important than ever.

But, luckily for the Michigan League for Public Policy and the struggling residents we represent every day, we are not alone in the fight against poverty. And we have a particularly strong ally who happens to be our top leader during these harrowing times: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

No other governor has made combating poverty a top priority, but Gov. Whitmer has since she first took office, from her annual budgets to the positive, proactive changes made by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and other departments to make services more accessible for residents.

And, most recently, the governor created the Michigan Poverty Task Force, which released its findings and policy recommendations last month.

The breadth and depth of the Task Force’s policy recommendations show how poverty is impacted by nearly every area of public policy, but it also shows how many tools are at policymakers’ disposal to improve residents’ economic standing. And there is a commitment to ensure that all departments work in concert to advance those policies and system changes.

Those recommendations include some of the League’s longstanding policy recommendations, including restoring the state Earned Income Tax Credit, strengthening safety net programs, improving child care access and affordability, and more.

But the recommendations also include new and innovative ideas, like establishing a new program to help residents pay their water bills, eliminating the “reduced-price” fee for school meals, and working to eliminate the digital divide and widen broadband and device access.

The Task Force’s full report and policy recommendations can be found at michigan.gov/leo.

Poverty is, unfortunately, an issue for families in every part of that state, including Northeast Michigan. New county census data fact sheets available at the League’s website, mlpp.org, shows the poverty rate is 13% in Presque Isle County. The rate is 14% in Alpena County, which is the same rate for Michigan as a whole. And poverty is even higher than the state rate in neighboring counties, with Montmorency and Alcona counties both having a rate of 17%.

Those were the county poverty rates prior to COVID-19 hitting the state, so they are surely even higher right now.

While the COVID-19 crisis and its various effects on our lives caught us all off guard, it is unacceptable to let our coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family members struggle to make ends meet. And we all need to work together to help them get through this crisis — and the many other challenges that lie ahead.

As a data-driven policy advocacy organization, we know that public policies almost always are moving the needle on poverty one way or the other.

The Michigan Poverty Task Force has outlined some plausible, immediate solutions to help Alpena area residents and people around the state, and I hope there will be bipartisan and universal support for those recommendations to better support our struggling residents around the state.

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

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