Solving poverty within reach

Last week, the Michigan League for Public Policy held its 2024 Public Policy Forum, bringing together hundreds of advocates and thought leaders as well as experts from across the state to explore the theme of “Economic Justice for All” people in Michigan.

The theme of this year’s forum was timely, considering that Michigan currently has the 13th-highest poverty rate in the nation — at 13% — and that almost 18% of our state’s kids are living below the poverty line.

The data is even more dire in Northeast Michigan. In Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties, the respective overall poverty rates are 17%, 16%, 19%, and 13%. The respective child poverty rates in those counties are 21%, 24%, 34%, and 19%.

But this is a problem we can solve.

During my opening remarks at this year’s forum, I shared what many of us already know — that poverty is a policy choice, but that ending poverty is also a policy choice, and we have clear evidence that the right policies can work.

We only need to look at the powerful but temporary coronavirus pandemic-era investments that ensured families with no or low incomes had access to food, health care, safe housing, and cash. Those investments kept 53 million people above the poverty line and cut child poverty in half.

Now that we’ve seen the power of those poverty-fighting tools and the dire consequences of ending them, the time is now for us to work together to transform our social safety net for good.

To bring home that message, we were fortunate to be joined by two exceptional keynote speakers: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Dr. Luke Shaefer. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is a renowned pediatrician and scientist who helped uncover and combat the Flint water crisis. And Dr. Shaefer is the director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan and is one of the nation’s leading scholars on poverty and social welfare policy.

During their keynote conversation, those two trailblazers discussed their groundbreaking work in improving public health and eradicating social and economic injustices in Michigan, including their recently launched program in Flint, Rx Kids. That first-in-the-nation program provides $1,500 in cash to Flint moms during pregnancy and $500 every month during the first year of a baby’s life. The program launched earlier this year and is already making a huge difference in the lives of Flint families, with program participants reporting that they have used the funds for things like diapers, baby monitors, car seats, and child savings accounts.

Getting the innovative program off the ground required fundraising, a C.S. Mott Foundation challenge grant, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds leveraged from the state. And TANF funds are something to sit up and take notice of, as the Rx Kids program is effectively using state TANF funds for what they were always intended to be used for: to help more Michigan families with low incomes reach financial stability.

During the forum, Dr. Shaefer also shared some insights from his recent book, “The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America,” which takes a close look at some of the most disadvantaged communities in America. What Shaefer and his colleagues discovered is that most places with the greatest need are not urban, but rather rural communities that have a history of “raw, intensive resource extraction and human exploitation.”

Because of a lack of critical mass, as Dr. Shaefer explained, our social safety net is not built up in rural areas.

And, rural or urban, it’s important to note history’s role in the challenges communities face today — for example, the level of segregation in a community over 100 years ago can predict the poverty level today.

That’s why it’s critical that we adopt solutions and programs that will help families here in Michigan to not only survive, but thrive.

Because we do have the power to eradicate poverty through policy change and the equitable use of our tax dollars, but it will take strong partnerships, bold action, and unwavering tenacity to make it happen.

The Rx Kids program is a perfect example of what can be achieved when a couple of smart and determined people come together with the right organizations and state partners to make what some would call the impossible possible.

Monique Stanton is president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.


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