Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha spends time with one of the youngest attendees at a July 31, 2023 press conference announcing $16.5 million in funding for the Flint pediatrician’s Rx Kids initiative. | Photo courtesy of the Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health at Michigan State University
When Shila Hurt imagines her hometown of Flint in the coming months and years, there’s a word that surfaces time and again: hope.
Hope that change is coming, that families struggling with the often crushing financial weight of caring for children are about to see some relief. Hope that poverty will subside and, in its place, will come improved health, both physical and mental.
Beginning in January 2024, every pregnant person in Flint is poised to receive a one-time payment of $1,500 followed by $500 payments per month for the first year of their child’s life. Made through a new program called Rx Kids, these funds could mean the difference between being able to make rent or pay for utilities, Hurt explained.
“First-time moms need cribs – you name it, we need it,” said Hurt, who has five children, including a 6-month-old baby. “There are so many things this could help with; it could help with transportation, with groceries. I’m really excited; I think it’s really going to help.”
In a city where the childhood poverty rate is approximately 50% – and where 35.5% of the entire metropolis lives in poverty – the United States’ first-ever citywide prenatal and infant cash allowance program aims to improve residents’ health and empower children and families whose experiences with the initiative could in turn dramatically transform public policy in the country, leaders of Rx Kids said during a Monday press conference held outside the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Flint.
Extensive research has found that poverty and low-income status are associated with a long list of health issues, including shorter life expectancy and higher rates of infant mortality, asthma, depression and substance abuse.
At Monday’s event, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, state Sen. John Cherry (D-Flint), Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha – a Flint pediatrician whose research helped to expose the water crisis that, beginning in 2014, left the city to drink lead-contaminated water – and H. Luke Shaefer, the director of University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative who is partnering with Hanna-Attisha to launch Rx Kids, announced that the state’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget includes $16.5 million for the program.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday signed the $57.4 billion general government budget, which includes the Rx Kids money that’s coming from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant funds.
Earlier this year, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint also committed to providing $15 million for Rx Kids, which is a collaboration among a number of different organizations, including the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, the Poverty Solutions program at U of M, and the Greater Flint Health Coalition.
In total, the Rx Kids initiative has raised nearly $35 million, ensuring that it can launch in January and run for at least three years. Hanna-Attisha and Shaefer are hoping to secure another $20 million with the goal of the program continuing for at least five years.
“I’m beside myself; I’m on cloud nine, grinning ear-to-ear,” Hanna-Attisha, who is also the associate dean for public health and a public health professor at MSU’s College of Human Medicine, said Monday. “It’s so emotional, to be able to do this in such a way that’s full of dignity, love and respect for our families is a dream come true.”
It’s that idea – that aid and dignity should be intertwined – that is in part driving this initiative, Hanna-Attisha and Shaefer explained. In a Black-majority city poisoned by systemic racism and government action, the Rx Kids program is meant to build bridges between the government and the community and leave people with a sense of agency when it comes to the aid. Flint’s water crisis began after emergency managers appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014 tried to save money by switching the city’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River without implementing anti-corrosion treatments.
First-time moms need cribs – you name it, we need it. There are so many things this could help with; it could help with transportation, with groceries. I’m really excited; I think it’s really going to help.
– Shila Hurt, a Flint resident and mother of five children
There will be no income requirement or means testing for the Rx Kids program; the only requirement for eligibility will be that the pregnant person is a Flint resident. Unlike other governmental aid, there will be no restrictions placed on the funds; families will have complete control over how to spend the money. That, program leaders said, gives families important agency to spend the funds on what they need most, from transportation and groceries to rent and childcare.
“This says, ‘We trust you; you know what your baby needs the most, and we’re not going to dictate what you need,” said Shaefer. “Research shows that matters a great deal for how families think about the aid, and what society thinks about it, too.”
Shaefer, who has long championed the idea of governments providing direct financial assistance to residents as a way to fight poverty, explained the Flint program is “based on programs like this that run all around the world.”
South Korea, Japan, the Czech Republic, Austria and Denmark, for example, offer mothers 52 weeks or more of paid leave. Cities across the U.S., like Los Angeles and Atlanta, have also begun piloting programs that provide a guaranteed income to some residents, though many of those programs have income requirements.
“In country after country we see them adopt a child allowance, and child poverty plummets,” Shaefer said. “… We’re doing something that’s never been done before in the country. It’s going to wipe away deep poverty for families and infants. We’re going to be able to see impacts on housing security, food security. We’re going to see what the difference of a universal program that treats families with dignity and respect can do. We’re going to see what it means to have this money flowing in Flint’s economy.”
For Hurt, the funding from the new initiative will likely mean a world of difference for parents trying to keep their heads above water as they navigate the endless costs associated with raising a family.
“I had preeclampsia early on in my pregnancy and had to leave work,” said Hurt, who now works a full-time assembly position and part-time as a home health aid. “Because I was out of work, I fell behind in a lot of different ways, and something like that [the Rx Kids funds] would’ve really made a difference.”
The funding is slated to not only benefit families in Flint but lead to a transformation of aid and public policy across the state and country, Hurt, Hanna-Attisha and Shaefer said.
“I hope we can see this spread to other cities and states,” Hurt said.
“People see us as a poor city with a horrible water problem; this puts us in a positive light,” Hurt continued. “It says, ‘We are thinking of you.’”
Hanna-Attisha noted that the fact that federal TANF funds are being used for the program allows other cities and states to emulate it using their own TANF money.
“It really provides an opportunity for sustainability and scalability,” Hanna-Attisha said. “This is something that really has the potential to be sparked in Flint but spread all over. This is about systems change.”
That Flint is at the forefront of this change is deeply emotional for a city that has faced so much over the past decade, Rx Kids leaders said.
“I’ve been thinking about the historic nature of what happened today,” Shaefer said, referring to Monday’s press conference. “If you went back eight, even five, years ago, can you imagine an event in the city of Flint announcing universal child cash benefits with the lieutenant governor? It’s an amazing moment.”
Cherry, who represents Flint in the Michigan Senate, said the work being spearheaded by Hanna-Attisha and Shaefer is set to bring about life-changing transformation in Flint and will be a blueprint for municipalities across the state and nation.
“We expect we’re going to see all sorts of things we’re trying to address improve,” Cherry said. “Maternal and infant mortality, we think we can impact that through this; childhood development, we can impact that.”
I’m beside myself; I’m on cloud nine, grinning ear-to-ear. It’s so emotional, to be able to do this in such a way that’s full of dignity, love and respect for our families is a dream come true.
– Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician
Ultimately, Cherry said, this is expected to impact everything from health to reading scores and graduation rates – and much more. Alleviating poverty, he and Rx Kids leaders said, brings about community-wide change that can entirely transform a society, allowing people to have more time to spend time with family, pursue their career goals and increase their civic engagement. The entire landscape of democracy, Hanna-Attisha explained in a previous interview with the Advance, will likely be impacted by this because people will have the time and mobility to engage in their community, vote and potentially even run for office themselves.
“We’re going to be transforming the individual lives of these babies who are going to be receiving this support, but there’s also the ability to transform at the community level,” Cherry said. “When we help babies develop and make sure they’re receiving everything they need to live healthy, when they themselves are more successful, the community as a whole has more success and opportunity.
“We have the opportunity to transform a generation in our community,” Cherry continued.
That, Hurt said, leaves her with a deep sense of pride and optimism about where her city is headed.
“I’m really happy this is happening here in Michigan and in Flint,” Hurt said. “I like the direction the city is going.”
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