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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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