Our human assets 

Here's a weird idea: Our most valuable asset is our people

They'll swear in our next governor this weekend, and everyone from corporate executives to newspaper editorial writers is brimming with excitement and hope. Can Rick Snyder, computer business nerd turned venture capitalist, turn Michigan's economy around? Will he attract new dynamic businesses? Balance the budget without new taxes? Leap tall buildings with a single bound?

Nobody knows, of course. When not speculating about Snyder, others in the media have been wondering about Jennifer Granholm, our outgoing governor, who is at last being blown away with the chill January winds. Will she find work in the Obama administration? Will the ex-first gentleman, Dan Mulhern, have to get a real job now? Will the couple end up hawking his leadership books on local access cable?

Uh, that's all like, uh, very interesting. Except that it isn't. Here's who we should be thinking about instead: There are more than 162,000 Michiganders who lost their jobs after the stock market crash two years ago, and haven't found new ones. They've been scraping by on unemployment compensation, which Congress extended, and then extended again.

But now, their luck has run out. We're cutting them off after 99 weeks. They aren't getting any more money, and many of them may have no idea how they are going to keep going, and eating.

There's a lot of confusion about this. Most people I've talked to don't realize that these folks are about to fall right through a big tear in our society's shredded and sinking safety net. Didn't President Obama just save them, somebody asked me, by selling out to the Republicans on tax cuts for the super-rich? Well, not exactly. Yes, there was huge controversy earlier this month, when Obama gave in and signed legislation extending tax cuts for the wealthy. He'd said he wouldn't do that.

This president wanted to extend the tax cuts for what remains of the middle class, true. But with the deficit ballooning out of control, he thought families making more than $250,000 could pay a little more. "Hell no!" their Republican vassals thundered. They had enough votes to filibuster, and the message they sent the president was this: We'll hold the unemployed hostage.

Unless the Democrats agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone, even those making more than $1 million a year, the Republicans wouldn't agree to continued extension of jobless benefits, which were boosted from 26 to 99 weeks to help cope with the recession. In the end, Democrats felt they had no choice. So unemployment benefits were extended, and Democrats got an expanded child tax credit as well. But the unemployment benefits were only extended to the old maximum of 99 weeks. (U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow tried to get them more time; she was ignored.)

State Sen. Gilda Jacobs, a Democrat from Huntington Woods, brought this to my attention last week. Actually, she won't be a state senator after this weekend; term limits have pushed her into what, these days, may be a more important job. Jacobs, who was known for intelligence, compassion and integrity during her senate career, will be the new head of the Michigan League for Human Services, or MLHS.

The league is dedicated to the idea that Michigan's lowest-income residents deserve some measure of economic security, as in not having to worry about starving to death. That ought to be seen as critical to maintaining any civilized society. But worrying about the neediest seems to have fallen out of fashion lately.

"We want to make sure these citizens have a voice, and a place at the table," Jacobs told me. What no one can deny is that there are a lot more folks down on their luck. Increasingly, they include the young, those of color — and people who never imagined they'd be in serious trouble, like benefits-exhausted "99ers."

Essentially, Jacobs told me, we are all going to be in more trouble than we know. What the nonpartisan, nonprofit league does mostly is policy analysis — plus lobbying officeholders to make sure they remember those not looked after by special interests and corporate lobbyists. This work comes naturally to Gilda Jacobs.

Earlier in her career, she was a special education teacher and then development director for JARC, a Jewish organization that primarily helps people with disabilities live full, rich lives. Today, she's worried about those whose last unemployment compensation is drying up — but even more about children.

"This has been a lost generation of kids," she said. Pre-kindergarten programs are extremely essential for poor and disadvantaged children, she knows. But they are easy targets for budget-cutters. "If we don't act now to make sure they can learn, where is Michigan going to be 20 years from now?"

Last year, nearly a quarter of all kids in the state were officially in utter poverty. Even in affluent Oakland County, one out of six kids live in homes whose incomes fell below the poverty line. In Wayne County, it was more than a third. The rate in Saginaw, even higher.

These are kids who will end up dysfunctional adults if not stimulated to think, to learn, to develop properly. The cost of doing nothing, in the long run, will be far greater than any savings we realize now.

What nobody knows is if our newly elected governor realizes this. Gilda Jacobs fears that many of the Tea Party types just elected to the Legislature don't have a clue. Her new job is to continue getting the Michigan League for Human Services the resources it needs to be the informed conscience of our government, winning grants and producing reports that prove investing in human capital is the most necessary investment of all.

Ironically, while too few policymakers know enough about the league, it constantly gets requests from desperate people who think it can provide them directly with food, shelter and services. What they do "is suggest they call their state legislator," the new director said with a smile.� However, they also suggest dialing 211, the United Way hotline. Operators are trained to direct them to the agency most appropriate to their needs.

Things may well get tougher. Last week, we learned that Michigan was the only state to lose people during the last decade. That not only means we lose a seat in Congress, "it will likely mean fewer federal dollars flowing into Michigan at a time when the need for services remains high," said Karen Holcomb-Merrill, MLHS's state fiscal project director.

That leaves it to the state to make up for this loss. That may be unlikely in today's political climate. But not doing so is more than likely to doom lost generations to come.

Maybe, just maybe, there's a little hope. Last week our next governor said he wasn't especially enamored of Jennifer Granholm's belief in rushing all over the globe to try to bring a few jobs back here. Snyder said, in effect, he'd prefer to grow them at home. That makes sense to me. But we can't do that unless we keep our infrastructure in shape. That means not only sound roads and bridges, but people who are healthy, well-nourished and educated.

Let's hope our venture-capitalist-in-chief realizes that investing in our human assets is a strategic move Michigan needs to make.�

More by Jack Lessenberry

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