A few years ago Michigan’s Economic Development Corporation produced a powerful “Pure Michigan” video, looking to make that “brand” work not just to promote tourism, but capture the whole of Michigan’s society and economy. There was no Tim Allen voice-over, just piano and stirring violins, incredible visuals, and some statements scrolling over Michigan scenes:
- “World’s longest freshwater coastline” ran over a movie of Great Lakes shoreline and kids spilling out of a cottage and leaping into a lake.
- “No. 1 public university in the country” ran over images of life, learning, and research labs at U-M.
As the music swells, other visuals showed schoolkids looking in awe at the Detroit Institute of Art’s Diego Rivera mural, touching the trains at The Henry Ford. There was a young woman gazing up in awe at the skyscrapers in Detroit, a classic car motoring down the open road.
It’s a real heart-tugging video, because it speaks to that ideal of Pure Michigan that we all have tasted, know and love.
Part of me was getting teary eyed, but another part of me was angry and frustrated.
Because almost all of things that are true about Michigan in the video—that define our state and our lives in it -- are also degraded, diminished, and at some serious risk, due to years of neglect and disinvestment. I wanted to stop and say: “Wait, don’t jump—that lake might have fecal matter.” The “Number 1 public university in the country” now costs twice as much and is out of reach for many. Our arts and cultural institutions have been defunded. And certainly be careful driving – that open road is full of potholes.
These are the same feelings Michigan citizens shared as they spoke to us in the new interactive report and video: “Michigan Dream at Risk.” Their story details the continued long-term degradation into 2014 of key Michigan assets the public associates with Pure Michigan, and the effects of this disinvestment on family incomes and opportunity.
Citizens told us Michigan is not where it needs to be economically, not because we don’t have a good enough business climate, but because we’ve been tearing down, not building up, the things that are Pure Michigan...that Michigan’s people care most about…and they aren’t happy about it.
Our Michigan Economic Center’s citizen research included focus groups, surveys and documentary journalism including a Pure Michigan-style video in which citizens share their hopes (and frustrations) over the direction of their state. This research found particularly strong citizen associations and emotional attachment with Michigan attributes and values that they feel also underpin economic success, including:
- Great schools and affordable higher education, where hard work creates a path to new opportunity and a better job,
- Roads and communities that aren’t falling apart, that citizens can be proud of and that are great places to raise a family,
- Clean waters, parks and special outdoor places where citizens can escape with their families.
The report also documents and illustrates the “facts of the case” --from the early 2000s up until this very year – the disinvestment, degradation and concomitant citizen frustration with the diminished condition of assets they view as key “pillars” of Michigan’s economic prosperity. These include:
- Roads: "Worst roads in the nation," a 15 percent drop in state investment in transportation systems from 2004 to 2014.
- City services: "4,000 fewer firefighters and police in Michigan communities". Local revenue sharing has declined 31 percent from 2004 to 2014
- Children: 16 percent decline in K-12 investment from 2004 to 2014, leading to elimination of arts, music, larger classes, and diminished quality
- Higher education: "College tuitions have doubled," and a 29-percent real investment drop in higher education funding from 2004 to 2014
- Outdoors: "Miles of polluted rivers has doubled; beach closures are up 22% over past 5 years." Conservation funding down 6 percent from 2004 to 2014.
- Income: “Biggest fall in family incomes in the nation.” Michigan has fallen from 19th to 37th in the nation in personal incomes from 2004 to 2014
There is plenty of blame to go around for this diminished Michigan Dream. But the biggest culprit is not the Great Recession, but the wrongheaded belief among leaders for many years that cutting taxes improves the economy.
Michigan’s long march towards the Emerald City of “business-friendliness” has crippled the things that really make Michigan go: Great schools, affordable universities, good roads, clean water, and communities you can be proud to live in. This tax cutting mania now finds Michigan almost $8 billion dollars below the self-imposed Headlee limit we once were bumping up against. That money – if we had it – would fix all our roads, keep college affordable, rebuild our schools and communities. But we decided not to do these things.
It is absolutely true that the current budget takes some baby steps towards reversing these trends – mostly in the areas of pre-K and higher education. But our leaders are still punting on some of our biggest challenges – and public embarassments – like the condition of our roads, and the need to rework the way we pay for basic community services like fire, water and police – a crisis that is coming everywhere , soon – as noted in Phil Power’s Bridge column.
The Michigan Dream At-Risk report tells us that in the view of Michigan citizens, we have miles to go to make Pure Michigan more than an idealized marketing campaign; and we won’t make headway until the people of Michigan insist that their representatives act to rebuild the state they love and the things they care most about.
That is why our report is designed to be interactive, and includes elements such as videos and visuals that can be shared through social media, and opportunities for citizens to share information and sign up to work with groups in their interest area who are advocating for change.
To drive change we have got to connect the “facts” of the case to real human stories and the emotional connection we all have to the state we love. I hope you will use the report and the video to put pressure on our leaders and legislators to invest in and build up what makes this state special, and go economically.