Detroit Free Press, February 3, 2008: Target Poverty

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February 3, 2008



In the 11 pages of her State of the State speech, Gov. Jennifer Granholm mentioned tax or taxes a dozen times, anger or angry eight times, jobs 54 times, and “alternative energy” or “renewable energy” 25 times.

One word she didn’t say was “poverty.”


It’s not a word people like to hear. Nobody wants to be associated with it. And even as skilled a speaker as Granholm would have lost her audience if she devoted her 55-minute address to the State of Poverty in Michigan.

But it is a staggering issue, affecting a third of the people of Michigan.

To be sure, much of what Granholm proposed in her 55-minute speech would combat poverty. But Ismael Ahmed, named by Granholm in August to head the state’s major agency for helping the poor, thinks it’s time we looked at the social equation the other way, too: How many problems could be reduced if we started by attacking poverty?

“I won’t go anywhere, speak any place, without talking about poverty,” Ahmed said in a conversation Monday, a day before the governor’s speech. Ahmed is director of the state Department of Human Services, which in one way or another provides help to 1.8 million people in Michigan, about one in five state residents. But statistics show that the number who are mired in poverty — “basically, they can’t live on what they make,” Ahmed said — is more like one in three.

The governor and her DHS director are not so much on different pages here as Ahmed is zeroed in on one aspect of the myriad of Michigan problems confronting Granholm. But his is a big one that underlies many others. Poverty does need a high profile in Michigan, embarrassing as that might be.

In her speech, Granholm said, “Government cannot be all things to all people — we have to focus on four things.” Her list:

• A job for every Michigan worker.

• Affordable health care for every family.

• Safe places to live and work for all of us.

• Quality education for our citizens — kids and adults.

Poverty figures in all of those. Unemployment causes it. Poor health care results from it. Crime is a byproduct of it, and education is the best way to fight it.

“The role of government, and the role of our department, is to provide the best safety net we can for people, and to begin to develop a future for them,” said Ahmed, 60, who can recall his own family being forced to go on public assistance several times during his childhood because of auto industry layoffs.

In his first few months as head of DHS, the former director of the ACCESS human services agency in Dearborn said he has felt nearly overwhelmed at times learning the extent of poverty in Michigan. Ahmed also said he’s sure that many poor people are not even seeking help because they are ashamed, particularly those who have fallen from the middle class due to lost factory jobs or health care issues.

“The newly poor … are the least capable of dealing with poverty,” Ahmed said. “They have no history of it.”

DHS is holding a series of meetings around the state on poverty that will build to a major summit this fall in Detroit. Ahmed isn’t certain where that will lead, but he is sure that unless Michigan confronts its poverty head-on, economic recovery is impossible.

“There’s your economic problem in Michigan,” Ahmed said. “We’re talking about a third of the people in this state. We have to raise the profile of poverty, show people what’s at stake.”

RON DZWONKOWSKI is editor of the Free Press editorial page. Contact him at or 313-222-6635.

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