A version of this column originally appeared in the Alpena News.
Home renovation shows have been on in the background for much of my life. Never my pick when given the power of the remote, I was a passive viewer at best. But last year I found myself paying closer attention.
Replacing roofs, fixing unstable beams, pouring concrete—there was something comforting about watching a team build something not just livable, but beautiful, amidst chaotic and uncertain times.
On these shows, the most necessary investments are not always the most glamorous. While there are some dramatic deliberations, the families usually decide to make the big fix. After all, creating that dream living room is no good if there’s a leak in the roof above.
Working on the Kids Count in Michigan Data Book, I started thinking about how our state spending should follow similar ideas. To make a Michigan that’s truly livable and beautiful for all, we have to make sure our foundation is solid.
The 2021 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book and county data profiles show that some of the strongest parts of our existing foundation are the public programs providing crucial support and services to families.
The majority of K-12 students in the Alpena News coverage area qualified for the Free or Reduced Lunch Program, from 58% in Alpena County to 65% in Presque Isle County. While this program ensures children are fed at school, it played an important role when schools closed too. Using the program, families were determined eligible for the Pandemic Emergency Benefit Transfer (P-EBT). P-EBT food assistance was issued to over 900,000 students across the state, ensuring that families were able to put food on the table in the worst months of the pandemic. This program is continuing in 2021 to help fight against child food insecurity.
Thanks to other programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Food Assistance Program (FAP), the infrastructure for EBT was already in place. In 2019, WIC provided healthy food, nutrition education, health referrals and other support to over 60% of families with young children in Alpena, Alcona and Montmorency counties. FAP provided additional food benefits to about 1 in 5 kids across the region at the end of 2020.
Medicaid continues to fund vital health care services for the majority of kids in all four counties. In a year of job losses that resulted in health insurance losses, Medicaid provided continuous services and was there to cover even more kids than in years before. Across Northeast Michigan and beyond, our state dollars make sure kids of all races and places can get the health care they need regardless of how the economy is doing.
These programs played their part to provide some security amidst the storm, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t cracks in the foundation that still need to be addressed.
In fact, the lack of similar investments in child care has led to a growing crisis. A Michigan League for Public Policy report from earlier this year shows how decades of declining state investment in child care meant fewer families accessing assistance. Unlike programs like Medicaid that continue to serve over half of families, at the end of 2020, rates of child care assistance were shockingly low. Alpena County had the highest percentage of kids ages 0-12 getting child care assistance in the region, at a meager 2%.
The 2021 Kids Count in Michigan data profiles also show that the costs of child care and housing eat up a big share of household budgets in Northeastern Michigan. Sometimes, this means families must give up economic or educational opportunities. Statewide, 31% of adults who couldn’t find child care reported having to leave a job to care for their kids.
Thankfully, there is growing acknowledgment that the time is ripe to make some big fixes. The recently passed school budget ends disparities in funding between districts for the first time in decades. More resources were dedicated for the Great Start Readiness Program and Early On programs. For child care, subsidy reimbursement levels to providers were just increased by 40%, providing a boost to these essential businesses and their workers. Further proposals to invest $1.4 billion in child care and over $100 million in affordable housing would use federal recovery funds wisely by expanding programs and providing direct assistance to families.
Functionality, security, stability, comfort—these are the words repeated throughout these renovation shows. It turns out they’re important for most families in creating a place to call home. Let’s make our state and federal policy improvements and investments with these same words in mind, making the big fixes and building a Michigan for all that’s built to weather the storm.