Some good news on poverty, but Michigan still has a long way to go

peter ruark

Peter Ruark is a senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy

In September, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual state poverty statistics. We learned that Michigan’s total poverty rate (15 percent) and child poverty rate (20.2 percent) are at their lowest in eight years, and that the poverty rate for African-Americans and Native Americans fell significantly since last year.

A poverty rate that is almost back to where it was just before the Great Recession is something to celebrate. It suggests there are fewer people experiencing serious hardship in our state. But, as so often is the case, there are a few caveats to the good news.

First, the poverty rate simply shows the percentage of the population that is below the federal poverty threshold. This measure was designed in the 1960s based on food costs, and many experts—including the person who created the poverty threshold measure—believe it is outdated as a tool for determining levels of need.

While the poverty threshold for a single parent household with two children is $24,339, for example, the Michigan League for Public Policy in its Making Ends Meet report calculates that after taking expenses such as rent and full-time child care into account, the household would need $47,321 to meet its needs without government or private assistance — nearly twice as much as the federal poverty threshold. We must never assume that just because a family is not officially considered poor, it is not experiencing financial difficulty.

Second, it is possible for a person to work full time and be in poverty. A full-time, year-round minimum wage job will not bring a three-person family above the poverty line. The idea that “the best way to leave poverty is through work” is correct, but only if the job pays an adequate wage.

Third, Michigan does not do a good job at helping its residents leave poverty. Temporary cash assistance (popularly called “welfare”) is only available to households with income below $9,768 per year—approximately half the poverty threshold and considered to be “extreme poverty.” Michigan’s Legislature has not set the minimum wage at a level that will enable workers to leave poverty through work. And, Michigan has cut adult education funding and programs that help low-skilled workers attain the skills and credentials they need to be successful in the job market.

The Census data also show that Flint has the worst poverty rate in the nation for a city its size, and Detroit, while its rate declined, is still ranked high as well. Michigan needs to figure out how to bring jobs back to the state or grow new jobs, but also invest more in adult education and making college tuition cheaper to make sure that the people who are suffering the most are prepared for those new jobs.

Policymakers in Michigan cannot just sit on their laurels because the poverty rate is improving.Rather, they need to prioritize state funding to help make work pay and to help residents get the skills they need to leave poverty permanently and move toward economic security.

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Thu, 10/12/2017 - 9:16am

I see two things wrong with the thinking in this article. First is that nowhere in the article does it discuss the responsibility of the person to assist in getting their own education. Simple things like making sure you arrive at school on time, assigned homework completed, and being attentive in class. Second is that the article doesn't seem to recognize that setting a minimum wage is just a form of inflation. If I make 150% of minimum wage today, shouldn't I expect to make 150% of whatever minimum wage is set to in the future, assuming satisfactory work ethic on my part? And will business owners be expected to magically produce the money required for this new wage without some form of increased productivity from the worker? I know that if I owned a small business and government decreed that I had to increase payroll, I would be looking for ways to increase productivity, and one of those ways might be to replace employees with automation. If a robot can assemble a printed circuit board, it can surely put special sauce, lettuce, and cheese on a bun.

Fri, 10/13/2017 - 12:37pm

If Mr. Ruark or his organization acknowledged that the individual is responsible then all they promote, all that that they have invested in to promote their organization fall flat and they must rethink the whole of 'public policy' and the elected officials have to rethink how they justify their being returned to office.

Whether it is education, financial status, health choices, family, etc. if there is even a bit of acknowledgement that the individual has a role in the results achieved then the whole idea that 'public policy' is the only means for protecting all of those people that are less than 'wealthy' and are the victims of those who are 'wealthy', that 'public policy' is the only means of providing people with the results they deserve, are wrong.
There are two simple tests for determining if the current approach to 'public policy' is failing; are Mr. Ruark and those using the same rationale for 'public policy' engaging in a conversation about the individual's role and responsibilities for the results they have, has anyone stepped forward to point out the things you are missing with your two points. And have any of them made any effort to learn from those who are achieving the results the 'public policy' they support will deliver, have they describe how the successes were only possible due to their public policy.
If there is a third, it would be epitomized by Mr. Ruark focus on the aggregated data and ignores that his aggregate is made up of individual situations, the individual choices and actions. He fails to recognize that unless the data is individually generate in by identical or near identical conditions that they aggregating will distort the information and provide a means to understand the problem. Each persons life is unique and the conditions that set up their choices/actions is unique, so there is no sufficient commonality to justify one policy or program will elevate all whose data is being used to justify the program. It should be obvious that a 'public policy' established in Lansing or by Mr. Ruark will not apply the same to someone in Paradise as to someone in Detroit or someone in South Haven. It would not apply the same to someone who choses drugs as it would to someone had never learned the work ethic.
If Mr. Ruark were more interested in helping people change their results, rather then focus on the averages of subsection of the populations that the less desired result he being interested in those with the more desirable results and to find lessons that accommodate the uniqueness of people sharing those lessons with those he has highlighted.
As right as you are it directly challenges the established organizations, people, government programs, that now populate the Lansing's operational culture.

Ren Farley
Thu, 10/12/2017 - 9:33am

It is important to emphasize the persistently high, if slowly, declining poverty rate in Michigan and racial differences in poverty. Will this be a key issue in next year's election? Would it be advisable to promote a larger EITC and an increase in the minimum wage?