Friday, November 14, 2008

Time to get serious on poverty

On Thursday I volunteered to help out at a massive summit on poverty held at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. I use the word "massive" because over 4,800 people pre-registered and several hundred more than that actually showed up.

That's a whole lot of people concerned about what I consider the most important issue of our generation.

Some may argue that the environment is the most important issue we face today but for me, the reality is that if you don't have food, access to care or quality education for your child or any confidence that you'll have a place to live next week, recycling and reducing your carbon footprint really isn't a major concern. And, if you are struggling to maintain some sort of decent existence for yourself and your family, the natural laws of self-preservation dictate that the environment should not take precedence. Right?

According to the Detroit Free Press, nearly two million Michigan citizens live in or around the poverty level, about $21,200 for a family of four. This includes 500,000 children.

Think for a moment about the fact that almost one in three Michiganders are considered low income and “food insecure”, are going hungry, even though the state doles out help in some fashion to 18 percent of residents. In fact, two months ago, the state tried to help by passing out food stamps, to 1.3 million people. The state also provides help in the form of child care aid to 96,000 working families. That's the operative term "working."

The poor people in our communities who need help aren't on corners begging for change or sitting on some freeway off ramp with a sign. Far too many of them are going to work everyday. We encounter them because they are our secretaries with three children, our waitresses and store clerks in similar circumstances, who don't make enough to provide for their families.

At the summit the Rev. Martin Luther King III told the crowd of more than 5,000 people, which included some held in the grip of poverty and many nonprofit and government service providers trying to help, that public officials need to invest billions to fix schools and to boost the minimum wage ($6.55 per hour) to more of a livable wage.

“If we will be a great nation,” he said. “Let us not be satisfied until we have education, decent jobs, a living wage, adequate and affordable health care and decent housing.”

According to the Freep, "The 2008 Voices for Action Poverty Summit was born of a survey conducted last year, asking Michigan citizens what put them at risk of becoming poor."
We have so many poor people in this state, so many people without jobs, that the state announced on Friday that it needs to increase the amount of money employers pay into the unemployment insurance fund.

About 40,000 Michigan employers will pay an extra $67.50 per employee in January to help pay off a $472.8-million shortfall in the state unemployment benefits fund, the newspaper said.

So here's your weekly dose of cynicism. I think that summits like this are invaluable. Any time your can bring hundreds of thought leaders and power brokers together for a rubber chicken lunch en masse --progress, in even minute doses -- ensues as a result of the networking and idea exchange. But the true progress comes in the post game. What happens next?

If there aren't committees that leverage the learning of the summit to create lasting change in the lives of the cyclically affected poor, the working poor and the soon-to-be-poor -- as a result of the perpetual job cuts that are now a daily above-fold headline -- then a whole mess of folks got together for nothing.

Imagine the cost of such a large-scale event in terms of cost and lost productivity. If no lives are changed as a result of us coming together at Cobo, then we would have been better served having gathered and, instead of planning to hold an event, dedicated what I suspect is six figures, to poor families. I'm sure the poor would appreciate a few extra dollars in their pockets. I'm not considered poor and I would.

1 comment:

el cabrel said...

Thanks for your insight Rodd!!!
It seems... since Sen. Edwards was off the campaign trial and making whoopie outside of the homefront--The issue of poverty has taking a stage left- Bush...well--Obama is busy-however, this issue needs to become priority #1, especially for Detroit. I look forward in reading your future blogs.
-Lee