Column: Whitmer’s new poverty task force gets it right 

February 14, 2020 5:47 am

As a teacher, I heard a lot of axioms over the years that resonated with me:

Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care; The very best teachers never stop learning; The best teachers teach from the heart, not the book.

One lesson from a mentor teacher was particularly simple … and particularly applicable to the work we do at the Michigan League for Public Policy, too. It goes like this: Teachers are often asked, “What do you teach?” Our knee-jerk reaction — and the expected response, of course — is something like, “I teach kindergarten,” or “I teach high school history.” 

The real response to “What do you teach?” though, is “I teach kids.”

Because at the end of the day, all teachers understand that we’re working with the whole child when it comes to education — not just their age group, not just a particular subject they study, but the whole person.

The same can be said for public policy. When someone asks me what the League does, I often feel compelled to list all the issues we work on, all the bills we’re following, all the analysis we do. But what it comes down to is similar to the idea of the whole child: all those issues work together to form a whole—in this case, a stronger Michigan.

Human beings can’t be sliced into fragments and treated in compartments. And policies shouldn’t be, either. Struggles in one area impact other areas.

That’s why Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new Michigan Poverty Task Force makes sense.

To get an idea of how Michigan is faring when it comes to poverty, let’s first look at the data: 43% of families in Michigan are struggling to get by, and 18% of families live below the poverty line, which for a family of three means making less than $19,998 per year.

When examining poverty, it’s important to understand how many different factors — housing, health care, wage fairness, racial inequities, and access to child care, food and transportation to name a few — can impact the lives of individuals. The Michigan Poverty Task Force is charged with making sure state government applies the full force of its efforts and resources to the fight against poverty. 

Some will bristle and say a ‘task force’ is just a label—a way to show concern about something without really taking action. But this particular task force is made up of state department directors and staff and has the backing of an executive order behind it. So if you think of it in a different way, the “boss” has given her employees an urgent directive — and outlined clear goals.  

And at the heart of this directive is people. Whole people.

The real-world struggles and kitchen-table budgeting of Michiganders around the state have been overlooked in state policy decisions for too long, and we appreciate the governor’s ongoing efforts to think about Michigan’s working families and what they really need to make ends meet. We at the League are eager to help the new task force move forward.  

The task force’s initial, and perhaps most important, charge is already in action — getting all of Michigan’s state departments, services and employees on the same page in helping residents who are struggling economically. 

We hear a lot about the government bureaucracy and red tape that get caught between people and the services and resources they need, and the task force is already working to eliminate those barriers and better coordinate. And by considering the comprehensive needs of Michigan residents and addressing poverty holistically, state government can start to make a difference right away.  

Whitmer and the Michigan Poverty Task Force are considering the whole problem when it comes to poverty, not isolating key pieces. And that’s the kind of coordination we need if we’re going to improve outcomes for Michiganders. 

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Laura Millard Ross
Laura Millard Ross

Laura Millard Ross is communications director with the Michigan League for Public Policy. She has taught English and journalism in the Lansing area since 2005 and prior to that worked in community development as director of the Old Town Commercial Association.