Poor Kids Don't Count in Rick Snyder's Michigan

Gov. Rick Snyder speaks after attending a Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee meeting, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 in Fl
Gov. Rick Snyder speaks after attending a Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee meeting, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 in Flint, Mich. The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News reported Friday that Valerie Brader, Snyder's senior policy adviser and deputy legal counsel, and chief legal counsel Mike Gadola expressed concerns about Flint's water in October 2014, nearly six months after Flint had begun using the river water to save money. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

When Michigan can't ensure safe drinking water in a major city and can't figure out how to educate children in its biggest school district, it's safe to say that our state's vaunted "comeback" is incomplete -- if we're being generous.

But even beyond the Flint water crisis and Detroit Public Schools' myriad woes, cracks in Gov. Rick Snyder's "comeback" claim have started to show.

U.S. census data released in December painted a sobering picture. In the last five years, three-quarters of Michigan cities and villages have had median income declines. Two-thirds of municipalities saw an increase in the share of people living in poverty.

It gets worse. There's been a 17 percent increase in poverty statewide. Now more than one in six people are poor. And Michigan's median household income was $49,087 per year, down 8.7 percent adjusted for inflation.

What does that mean? For some Michiganders, the recession didn't end until 2013 -- which probably helps explain why plenty of people today still feel like we're in the throes of an economic downturn.

It probably doesn't help that we're the only state to see local revenues decline from 2002 to 2012, according to the Michigan Municipal League's analysis of census data. Michigan is one of only four states that reduced investments to cities during that time.

But for me, the hardest pill to swallow is that child poverty has increased in 80 of Michigan's 83 counties from 2006 to 2014.

The rate has jumped 23 percent statewide, and now 23 percent of children are poor, according to the "Kids Count" report, meticulously compiled by the Michigan League for Public Policy. Almost 50 percent of African-American kids and one-third of Hispanic kids live in poverty.

Child abuse and neglect also shot up 29 percent during the same time. Roughly one-third of children live in a household where no parent has secure employment. And 17 percent of kids live in high-poverty neighborhoods, making us the eighth-worst state in the nation.

Child poverty has increased in 80 of Michigan's 83 counties from 2006 to 2014.

"Research shows that poverty has a detrimental impact on Michigan kids' health -- from lead exposure and asthma to low birthweight and infant mortality, education performance and graduation rates, and future employment and economic security," the League reminds us.

If you believe a society is judged by how it takes care of the "least of these," Michigan is an abject failure.

Now it's true that the Mitten State has some structural disadvantages. Our stubborn dependence on the domestic auto industry -- which nearly collapsed seven years ago -- has made us susceptible to deep, sustained recessions.

That's also meant that we didn't always prioritize higher education, since Michiganders used to be able to get good manufacturing jobs with just a high school diploma. While our number of college graduates has increased in recent years, we still lag 2 points behind the national average of 39 percent.

But let's face it. Fighting poverty just hasn't been important for Snyder and legislative Republicans. They've run the state since 2011, having the good fortune to take over as we were in the midst of an economic recovery, however uneven.

They've followed conservative economic dogma of cutting taxes for big businesses and the wealthy -- and things are certainly going swimmingly for them. But that hasn't trickled down to many residents, particularly in rural areas and industrial cities and suburbs.

And children have been hurt most of all. Kids who grow up poor face so many barriers, from decrepit schools with rats and mold to lead in their homes and drinking water. Some of them remember their neighbors getting gunned down and others have never seen a doctor. Many don't eat breakfast because there's no food in the house, while others don't have a home at all.

There are thousands of horrors and indignities that these children suffer -- things those of us who are fortunate would never allow to happen to our own kids.

Sooner or later, the obstacles become insurmountable for too many kids in poverty. Then they become criminal, health and educational statistics for right-wing politicians, who have steadfastly maintained that human services programs for their parents are socialism run amok.

When you ask them why these children should suffer, conservatives usually mumble something about churches and charities helping them -- if they bother answering at all. At this point, can we all admit that we know that's not enough?

Former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer once compared welfare to "feeding stray animals." He's a morally reprehensible human being, but at least he was honest. Other politicians blithely vote to slash the safety net and pretend nobody is getting hurt. Please.

Let's go back to 2011, when Michigan Republicans were working on their first Snyder-era budget, and a House panel decided it would be a great idea to save $10 million by cutting a clothing allowance for orphans.

It really was something out of a Charles Dickens novel, and then-Rep. Dave Agema (R-Grandville) delighted in playing the heartless villain. "I think the hardship is negligible," shrugged the man who would go on to be the GOP's most notorious bigot -- that is, until Donald Trump came on the scene.

That prompted GOP former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema to shake his head that legislators were being "unnecessarily punitive with poor people." This, of course, set the tone for when they later slashed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), unemployment benefits and welfare.

So come on. Is anyone truly surprised at skyrocketing rates of child poverty in Michigan? If you are, you might be terribly shocked to find out what goes on at the Greektown Casino.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com.

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