Find way to help the poor, conversation participants say

The recent trajectory of Joanne Becigneul’s life is almost a miniature version of Michigan’s: Flying high just a few years back, with a six-figure income from selling direct-mail advertising. Then ovarian cancer hit her like a cruise missile. Soon she was fighting for her life and watching years of savings drain away, until she found herself only days away from homelessness.

Now, like the state she lives in, the 50-year-old Clinton Township resident finds herself slowly climbing back. She operates a small thrift store in St. Clair Shores and is able to pay at least her rent, most months. But she’s not counting on the good times she once enjoyed to return anytime soon.

Maybe it was people like Becigneul that participants in The Center for Michigan’s 2014 Community Conversations were thinking of when a large majority of them identified working to decrease poverty as the most important quality-of-life priority for Michigan’s current and future leaders.

The Center for Michigan engaged over 5,500 residents over seven months, to identify a citizens’ agenda for the 2014 legislative session and election season. Most were through Community Conversations held all over the state, but others were polled and participated online. This is the Center’s fourth major engagement campaign.

The passion among Michigan residents for reducing poverty was a choice that crossed all racial, income and demographic groups.

Seven in 10 conversation participants identified poverty as an urgent priority, when asked to choose from a quality-of-life menu that also included improving public safety, improving public health, protecting Michigan’s environment, supporting arts and culture, revitalizing cities and investing in public transit. Second on the list: nearly 60 percent said revitalizing Michigan’s cities should be an urgent task for lawmakers.

The passion among Michigan residents for reducing poverty was a choice that crossed all racial, income and demographic groups, but was especially strong among part-time workers, the unemployed, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and low-income households.

It’s a fitting choice for a state that fell further faster than most. Michigan’s once-robust manufacturing sector lifted immigrants and native-born residents into solid middle-class comfort, but in the last two decades changes wrought by globalization and technology have eliminated many of those jobs. The Community Conversation indicates residents want the topic taken seriously.

“I’m thrilled (to hear this), because it reinforces that the message is really starting to get out,” said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy. “When we talk about Michigan as the comeback state, it has to be the comeback state for everybody.”

“Henry Ford figured this out a long time ago: You pay people a wage that will allow people to purchase the product you are making. And it was transformational. But we’ve lost over a million jobs,” said Jacobs. And when the economy started to recover, the jobs that came back were harder to get, because they demanded new skills that yesterday’s factory worker might not have had.

With so many unemployed or underemployed in lower-paying jobs with less purchasing power, more have to access public services like Medicaid or food assistance.

But that is not a long-term solution, said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who said he was “not surprised at all” by the Community Conversation findings, but believes the answer comes not in boosting assistance to the poor, but in promoting economic growth.

“I am 60 years old,” Jones said. “When I turned 18, could literally walk out of high school and get a wonderful job with no college education. Those days are over.

“There are still good jobs available. But we will have to do everything possible to get our children to go to the community colleges and get the training they need for those good jobs.”

A call to rebuild cities

Other issues are braided into poverty, which is reflected in the next most-urgent choice among conversation participants: Revitalizing Michigan’s cities was called urgent by 58 percent of them, with higher numbers among students, African Americans and Hispanics. Detroit’s problems are national news, but other Michigan municipalities suffer on a less dramatic scale.

“I am 60 years old. When I turned 18, could literally walk out of high school and get a wonderful job with no college education. Those days are over.” – Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge

“It shows progress to where we need to be as a state in order to attract and retain talent,” said Summer Minnick, director of policy initiatives and federal affairs for the Michigan Municipal League. “Talented individuals are attracted to good cities. Any recognition that an increasing percentage of our population recognizes that is good news.”

But cities need to do more than attract talent; they also have to provide services to those who live there, which Minnick called “far and away” the most vexing problem facing Michigan’s cities today. The reliance on property taxes, whose revenues fell sharply with the decline in the real-estate market during the most recent recession, left many cities gasping for air, and no solution has been floated as yet. Moreover the Headlee Amendment doesn’t allow property taxes to rise past the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is lower.

“How can we ensure these local units of government can manage their finances long term?” Minnick asked. “Because of our constitutional caps, (cities) can’t generate the revenue they were generating eight years ago for another 20 or even 30 years.”

Other issues showed splits along demographic lines, reflecting the different realities Michigan residents contend with. Improving public safety, for example, was an issue more than 40 percent of participants called urgent, but it was far more so to those with lower incomes, and African Americans. Only about a third of whites and more affluent residents saw this issue as a priority.

Public transit, which only 6 percent of participants called the state’s most important quality-of-life issue, is nonetheless tied to city health and poverty, said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United in Detroit. Less-wealthy people are more likely to rely on buses to get to jobs, and spend a disproportionate share of family income buying and maintaining cars.

“Far too many people in Detroit are unemployed, partially because they can’t physically get to the job,” said Owens. “It has an impact on the economy whether people personally see it or not.

Reliable public transit “is not just a nice-to-have, it has a direct economic impact,” Owens added. “Both millennials and baby boom empty nesters are choosing where they want to live based on vibrancy of the city. And this is one area where Michigan continues to struggle in not providing a competitive alternative to the Chicagos and Bostons of the world.”

Michigan’s quality of life, whether reflected in a slow police response or a needed bus missing in action, ties back into poverty. Or, as one conversation participant put it:

“I live in poverty. If you reduced the poverty in my neighborhood everything would get better. The crime rate would go down because people wouldn’t have to steal because they’d have their own; public transportation would be better because people would feel safe using it.”

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Thu, 05/08/2014 - 10:57am
“I am 60 years old,” Jones said. “When I turned 18, could literally walk out of high school and get a wonderful job with no college education. Those days are over. “There are still good jobs available. But we will have to do everything possible to get our children to go to the community colleges and get the training they need for those good jobs.” In response to Rick’s comments: I am almost 73 years old and had a similar experience when starting out. I was able to go to general motors and receive a living wage with basically very little education. I tell my wife on several occasions we now live in a different world and would have a difficult time in today’s economy with technology eliminating a lot of the manufacturing jobs that required more than a lunch bucket. I feel the possibilities are still there but require imagination and effort on the part of all Americans to move us forward. We have one common thread that should hold us together and that is we are Americans and if we worked together great things would happen. There is no magic bullet to solve all our ills and it will require real leadership at the local state and national level to achieve results. Dale Westrick Concerned citizen.
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 11:52am
In today's world, there is instant communication, and almost instant transportation. Everyone today is competing with those on the other side of the world, as they are with us. In some cases, it makes sense to purchase US made goods for use on the other side of the world, and in other cases, using US made goods puts one at a competitive disadvantage. People have to search out their own niche where their presence at a local place is required, and train accordingly. As an example, when it is 30 below, you want a furnace repairman who is local. The furnace or part may be imported, but there is no way (yet) for the installer to be a distant worker. We all must keep up with a rapidly changing world, and a harsh as it seems, each of us is worth no more than anyone else unless we have some very special advantage.
Charles Richards
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 3:09pm
Ms. Derringer points out that the fall in property values "left many cities gasping for air, and no solution has been floated as yet. Moreover the Headlee Amendment doesn’t allow property taxes to rise past the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is lower." This is only partially true. Voters can, if they wish, vote to override the Headlee Amendment's limitations. That is something that Mr. Minnick failed to take into account when he said, "“How can we ensure these local units of government can manage their finances long term? Because of our constitutional caps, (cities) can’t generate the revenue they were generating eight years ago for another 20 or even 30 years.” He objects to our reliance on property taxes, but proposes no alternative. Historically, property taxes have been the most stable of possible sources of revenue. What does he suggest? That said, the Headlee Amendment (given voters reluctance to enact overrides) does put municipalities in a straitjacket. Municipalities will not receive any increases (in inflation adjusted terms) in revenue for decades. Perhaps we should consider modifying Headlee.
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 8:33am
Some disjointed truths from a former teacher: There was a time when semi-skilled work was readily available and well paid. That day is past. It now behooves the individual to prepare for the work that is available, and it behooves parents to guide the students in that endeavor. Furthermore, the quality of the education is directly related to the quality of the teacher. Teachers Unions had a place back in the 60s, but they now succeed only in self perpetuation and reinforcing the mediocrity that burdens many public schools. Poor administration in many school districts does the rest of the job. Finally, education, particularly at the technical school level, must be driven by the needs of employers. I give you the Wisconsin Technical College system as a good example.
Big D
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 9:28am
Obviously the answer to poverty is to have all the people below FPL get a job with govt--then they will be well off. Let the hiring begin. Oh, I forgot, we'd have to raise taxes. I'm gratified to hear voices for working on the economy, instead of merely increasing entitlements. The feds unfortunately allowed us to relax work requirements for welfare...however most important is to provide the means and the INCENTIVE for every person to take personal responsiblity and pull their own weight. Ms. Becigneul is an entrepreneur (albeit micro), and is to be lauded for her initiative. I'm tired of the "income inequality" narrative while business, the engine of prosperity, is stifled by taxes, regulation and cronyism. (I must explain: Cronyism allows the big guys to take out the little guys, and to gain other inequitable advantages by propping up political elites).
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 7:13pm
this june the MINIMUM wages in canada will be 11.00 in europa 11.75 EU .and in michigan $7.25 .....the road and bridge budget is 2004 1,5 billion since gov. Engler but where and why do we have potholes. Time to change road contrater and check the book in lansing : since the SEC.of state takes in cash everyday ,by us paying for the license plate(paper) every year .How much money comes in everyday.the public need and wants to know. P>S by raisein the minmum wages the stste would get more money in taxes plus save fortune by not printing or mailing (NEW TAXES)without the increase in minmum wages Foodstamps have been cut. Home Heating Credit have been lowerd to $ 6. from $ 150-500.Fedreal money/ our Vetreans get $ 400 a months plus they donot qualifi for FOODSTAMPS. rent refund have been cut for section 8 (by city appliying PILOT program to out of STATE landlords<YEA the MOney doesnot stay in Michigan, deal. Also no tourist is comming to DRIVE ON MICHIGAN ROADS, 50 year "The war on proverty" is not won ...thank Pres. lLB Johnson
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 2:31pm
Regarding poverty, I know many, many kids in their early 20's who don't have driver's licenses to get to jobs. The system is insane when you think about it. Kid is driving his friend's car and his friend doesn't have insurance. Kid gets stopped for turning on a red and gets a $150 ticket for no insurance (how many kids check this out when they borrow someone's car?). Kid doesn't have money to pay for ticket in 2 weeks, so a $115 penalty is tacked onto the ticket - it's now $265. If kid can't pay that for a while, a warrant is issued for his arrest. If arrested, there are lawyer fees, more court fees, maybe jail. It is a part of poverty that people don't mention. It is rampant in Detroit. You read about kids with felonies - and they are tickets they can't afford to pay. The courts are ruining people's lives - they could be more compassionate and not be so greedy.
Tue, 06/24/2014 - 9:31pm
well if they stop putting falsely accused people in prison for crimes they did not do, like csc, saying that other people were in a place they weren't in when something happen to someone, when they didn't live in michigan. So they lied n put people in prison, Their are at least 11 to 100 people n possible more in prisons Ironia, MI that are falsley accused doing time for something they DID NOT DO, the courts do not investigate these crimes enough n it all boils down to prosecors n defenders n other people going up for elation n trying to get that next spot on the judges seat or the other seats so the falsley are people are put away n waste all that money , cause all they are thinking about is getting on that seat, thats the way they are in mason county,Also many of the dudes in that prison have bad, bad, bad, teeth issues infections so bad that all the doctors n nurses in their do is tell them to lose more weight n they will be fine, they more weight they lose the less padding they have on their bones n n YES the more medical issues it is GOING TO COST!! their are guys in their with black teeth who have infections so bad that when they walk by you can smell their infection , that is not good they could died from that, Ironia, MI prison does not give to rats buts about any of them people in their the ones on the 4th level get LARGE HELPING OF FOOD the ones on CSC levels get 1 small teas to tabs of each food serviced on their plates most of them guys are all staving they are all skinny cause the food makes them all sick, they can't eat it the mostly food served is beans, rice, pasta, the water their is yellow n smells n taste really bad, the lights flickers on n off the door alarms go off n no one is their the wiring has a short in them alot of days they have all kinds of insects n bugs coming out of the vents n spiders that bite on the dudes in their, they have mersa going on in their, guys people in their doing you know what n the guards don't seems to care , falsely accuse men n women do not need to go to prison that is people between any age like 30's to over 60's also their is guys in their that have a broken knee cap n has been knocked off a bench n it bleed but no one did anything about it then, n has fall some how on it again n bleed they don't care at that prison, he has bad legs n hips n lower back n they won't let him buy any more blankets for padding just tell him to lose more weight hes already skinny, also they is another dude their in his 50s or older who has a real bad shoulder n leggs n the same prison isn't doing anything to help him either n hes very skinny to , they have put in a kite to get someone to look at them n it can take up to 2 or 3 months or longer to get them looked at, Some one needs to go in their secertly w/o the prison knowing they are coming n see for their self cause IF they know you are coming they will straigthen everything up n they need to be caught, I know its not a hoilday inn but still them dudes should have their teeth fix n then bones n if the state gets paid so much money were is it really begin USED, So theirs one way to stop wasting state money stop allowing the courts to put falsely accused people in prison When they have all the proof , don't aloud the rape sheld to BE used when falsley accused people DO HAVE WITNESSES N PROOF who really did not DO the csc charges n that they didnot live in the state of michigan BUT does have the PROOF WHO DID DO IT,