Commentary: Between the Cracks

Jan 4, 2011

A former student sent me an e-mail a couple days ago that made me both happy for her and concerned about our state. She had been a “ninety-niner,” Beth confided, and her prospects looked bleak.

She worried about having to move back in with mom and dad. But then, on Christmas Eve, she got a job. “Not a glamorous job, but a necessary one,” she said.

That made me happy for Beth, but also reminded me that there are at least 162,000 other ninety-niners in this state who aren’t as lucky. Ninety-niners, by the way, are people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits.

Many have more than their own apartments to worry about; some are the sole support of their families. Many have homes they may lose. And there’s a lot of confusion about their status. “Didn’t their benefits get extended as part of the deal to extend the Bush tax cuts?” somebody asked me.

Well, no. In return for continuing the Bush-era tax cuts for even the wealthiest Americans, Congress did agree to extend emergency unemployment benefits through this year. Normally, unemployment benefits last six months at most. But when the Great Recession hit, they were extended to a maximum of 99 weeks.

That’s five weeks short of two years. After that, however, those who can’t find a job fall through a hole in the safety net.

And that’s a lot of people these days. Today’s ninety-niners are people whose jobs disappeared in the first few months of the stock market crash in late 2008. The recession deepened steadily after that, and their numbers are projected to grow.

I learned a lot about this from Gilda Jacobs, who just took a new job that involves worrying about them. Jacobs was a respected state senator whose legislative career ended four days ago, thanks to term limits. Now, she’s  the new head of the Michigan League for Human Services, a uniquely non-partisan, non-profit lobbying group.

What makes them one of a kind is that they do research, policy analysis, and try to influence lawmakers on behalf of Michiganders who can’t afford a lobbyist, and may not even know what one is.

They’ve been around for almost a century, and exist to serve low-income citizens, and to try and prevent future generations from falling through the cracks.

“We want to make sure these citizens have a voice, and a place at the table,” Jacobs said. These days, there are a lot of low-income or no-income people who never imagined they’d be there.

Jacobs is a former teacher -- and she is especially worried about children. “This has been a lost generation of kids,” she told me, a generation she fears will continue to get bigger.

Learning has to start early, and pre-kindergarten programs are especially essential for poor and disadvantaged children. But they are also tempting targets for budget cutters. Jacobs knows just how dire Michigan’s finances are. Yet she asks, “If we don’t make sure these kids can learn, where will Michigan be twenty years from now?”

Governor Rick Snyder told the state Saturday that “the reinvention of Michigan must not leave anyone behind.“

The Michigan League for Human Services intends to do all it can to make sure the state lives up to that pledge.