Commentary: Where's the outrage?

Feb 1, 2013

The Michigan League for Public Policy released its annual Kids Count data book yesterday. Unfortunately, it didn’t get a lot of attention in most of the media.

To the extent that I did hear or read about the Kids Count report across our state, the coverage emphasized two things:

Much of it focused on how kids were doing in a particular area, since for the first time, the report ranked individual counties on a wide variety of indicators. Beyond that, we did hear that the overall well-being of our children got significantly worse in the years two thousand and five to two thousand and eleven. That’s something you might expect, given the Great Recession.

But to me, that’s not the real news, and none of the media gave this report nearly the attention it deserved. This report, which anyone can read online, reveals that more than half a million Michigan children are living in poverty. Half a million!

The precise number is five hundred and thirty-seven thousand. Half of those live in deep poverty, which means an income half that of the official poverty level. We‘re talking trying to feed, cloth and house a family of four on ten thousand dollars a year, or less.

Nobody can do that. During those six years, child poverty in this state zoomed by twenty-eight percent. That’s the identical figure for the increase in kids who were victims of abuse and neglect.

Let me say it again. More than half a million of our children are living in poverty - that’s about a quarter of all children in Michigan. There’s no doubt about the accuracy of these figures; the project is a collaboration between the Michigan League and Michigan’s Children, two respected non-partisan and non-profit groups.

Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped into national outrage three-quarters of a century ago, when he said “I see one-third of a nation, ill-clad, ill-housed and ill-fed.” Today, one-quarter of Michigan’s children are ill-clad, ill-housed and ill-fed, and we don’t seem to give much of a damn.  Yet we should, if only out of narrow self-interest.

These kids are the future, and they are highly unlikely to do well in school when they don’t have enough to eat, or adequate medical care. What will become of them, and us, when they grow up? Kids who survived the poverty of the Great Depression could later find good-paying factories or warehouse jobs. But those days are gone forever.

If you are in your thirties or forties, you are going to be relying on the earnings of this very generation when you are elderly. The prospects for their futures look pretty dim.

Even in supposedly affluent Oakland County, where I live, thirty-seven thousand kids are living in poverty, and one in five mothers are getting inadequate prenatal care.

While we are all going to pay for this, financially and otherwise, it’s also time to ask, on a simply human level, “Where’s the outrage?”

Because there doesn’t seem to be any. Neither Governor Snyder or the Democrats are talking about this. Doing something would cost money, and they don’t have the courage or the will to do that. And to me, that just might be the biggest scandal of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.