A group of Michigan House Democrats is urging that something be done for the state’s working poor.
In particular, they say too many working mothers are being pulled under by a whirlpool of low wages, inadequate benefits and childcare costs. In the days leading up to Mother’s Day weekend, they announced a “Mamas’ Agenda” to improve their lot.
Jessica Alicia loves helping people who need it. So, despite the $8.00-an-hour salary, the young Delta Township resident hangs on to her 15-hour-a-week job at Lansing’s St. Vincent Catholic Charities, helping parents in need.
“I want to be an advocate for low-income families,” she explains. “I want to help them stop that chain of poverty. I want to let them know that they can make time for school, they can continue their education.”
Challenged At Home
But the line that divides Jessica’s work and her life is strangely blurred. After losing a better paying human services job when federal funding ran out, Jessica herself has come to rely heavily on public programs. She receives assistance from ‘Women with Infants and Children—WIC; from the Michigan Department of Human Services for daycare and food stamps, and Medicaid.
In the modest apartment she shares with her 11-year old daughter and 1-year old son, she says the assistance doesn’t eliminate difficult decisions.
“Am I going to pay my rent or am I going to pay my utility bill?,” she asks. “I have two shut-off notices. There is no money in the area right now to even get me help for assistance for utilities if they got cut off right now. If they were to be cut off, I would literally go with no water and no lights.”
Some House Democrats support an ambitious package of four bills dubbed the “Mamas’ Agenda” to help people like Jessica. It calls for paid sick days for working mothers, a child-care tax credit to enable better child care and hiking the state’s minimum wage. One sponsor--Farmington Hills Representative Vicki Barnett--says moves like these not only help people, they grow the economy.
“Anytime you create an environment where workers have decent pay for a decent day’s work and are compensated for when they need to be so they don’t fall through the cracks, we help grow a middle class,” she says. “Most third-world countries are trying to grow a middle class. We’re the only one I know that doesn’t seem to understand how great it is to have one.”
Dems know they’re on one side of a familiar philosophical divide. Michigan Republicans currently form a majority in the legislature. They, along with Governor Rick Snyder and the business community say the bills would only add costs that would jeopardize the state’s improving jobs picture. In March, Michigan’s 8.5% unemployment rate was the lowest since the summer of 2008.
Dave Jessup of the Lansing-based Small Business Association of Michigan says pushing that number lower has to remain job one.
“The first priority is getting people back to work so they can get a wage, get a salary,” he counters. “None of these proposals carry much weight so long as people don’t have jobs in the first place.”
Jackson County Republican Mike Shirkey says Democrats are overreaching. He says the package of bills ought to be renamed the ‘Nanny Agenda.’ Shirkey says most Republicans are fervent about solutions that are market-driven, not government-driven.
“We don’t know how many people we are precluding from working because businesses may not feel like they can afford to pay minimum wage, but yet somebody might be willing to work for less,” he maintains.
Shirkey admits he’s more receptive toward one of the four bills. A so-called ‘wage theft’ proposal would crack down on employers when they short workers pay or force them to work off the clock. Shirkey sits on the House Commerce committee, which is likely to start looking at some of the measures this week.