As we emerge from the COVID-19 public health crisis and start working toward an equitable recovery for all Michiganders, policymakers have a historic opportunity to make investments to help undo systemic barriers to opportunity and housing experienced by many Michigan residents.
Based on the most recent Census data available, around 30% of residents in The Alpena News’s four-county coverage area have an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or graduate or professional degree. There are many different professional paths that don’t require a higher education. But residents in Northeast Michigan and around the state should be able to base their decision to get a college degree or skill certificate on their preferences and passions, not their finances.
As Michigan looks to open doors to opportunity for more residents and invest in and improve workforce development, legislators should continue to support the Michigan Reconnect Program. The decision by workers to get trained in new skills is often made more than 10 years after graduation from high school. However, Michigan’s financial aid targets “traditional” college students (ages 18 to 24 who go to college full-time), despite the fact that a significant and growing percentage of students are older.
The Michigan Reconnect Program helps fill this area of need by providing two years’ worth of in-district tuition for older students to receive an occupational credential.
Many low-paid workers have a difficult time finding other jobs that would provide higher pay and more job security. Often, that is because of a lack of a postsecondary degree, certificate, or license.
Financial aid would help workers in low-wage jobs acquire new marketable skills, leading to better employment.
Increasing the skill levels of workers is also good for Michigan’s economy.
When workers earn more, they pay more in taxes, spend more money in their local communities, and are less likely to need public assistance. Providing grants that enable working parents to get skilled jobs is good workforce development, and generous financial aid with wraparound services can help reduce economic, employment, and educational disparities for people who live in low-income communities.
Housing is another area of need for Alpena area residents — and an area of needed investment for policymakers.
Too many families have to choose between housing and other basic needs, compromising their education, employment, and health.
In Alcona and Montmorency counties, nearly half of renters are spending more than 35% of their income on their housing. And around 20% of homeowners in Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties have a mortgage payment that is 35% of their income.
But there are several budget investments state elected officials can make to help families afford safe, reliable housing.
Policymakers can help increase the supply of attainable housing and workforce development by providing funding to support acquisition, renovation, and resale of land bank properties, with a requirement that paid apprenticeship training opportunities be offered at each renovation site.
The state budget should also include a down payment of at least $100 million for the Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund, which improves both the quantity and quality of affordable housing for families with low incomes, and identify a permanent revenue stream. Previous MHCDF projects helped older adults, people with disabilities, and people experiencing or at risk for homelessness obtain safe homes.
Legislators should also establish a Rental Housing Partnership Trust Fund to address housing challenges for renter families, including measures to encourage landlords to rent to tenants with low incomes.
Historically underfunded federal rental assistance programs reach only one in four eligible households. Long waiting lists and rejection by landlords present further obstacles to housing stability for the few families that receive assistance.
The state should invest in that venue for improving relations between landlords and tenants and developing tools to ensure a more inclusive rental market for families facing the greatest housing challenges.
An affordable higher education, better job opportunities, and quality, affordable housing are all ways to better support our workers and improve our economy.
As lawmakers look to get the most bang for the state’s bucks and make smart investments this budget cycle, they should prioritize funding for Michigan Reconnect, the Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund, and other programs to improve housing access.
Alex Rossman is external affairs director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.
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