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Slow population growth highlights ALICE households

Figures released last week by the US Census Bureau show that the nation’s population rose at its slowest rate in 120 years. The US population increased by just over 1M people between 2019 and 2020. The slow economic growth is also shining some light on another measure of economic prosperity among so-called ALICE households.

Preliminary data show that sixteen US states, including Michigan, lost population. Michigan’s combined population losses throughout the past decade could cost it another seat in the US House of Representatives. Michigan’s population losses are tied closely to the state’s poverty rate.

Currently, 14% of the state’s population lives under the federal poverty line. Nearly one of every five children under the age of 18 in Michigan lives in poverty. In Southeast Michigan, 15% of the population lives below the poverty line. Nearly 22% of children under the age of 18 live in poverty.

A second measure, created by the United Way, highlights the “working poor.” Asset, Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) enumerates households living on the upper edge of the poverty line. ALICE households typically feature low-wage earners in entry-level or low-skill jobs. These households generate enough income to rise above the poverty line, but not enough to get by. In many cases, these households do not qualify for assistance, but also cannot meet their basic needs.

Rebuilding Michigan’s economy is essential to stopping the population decline here. Part of that strategy must include reaching out to people in both ALICE households and households below the poverty line. That outreach must include educational programs that put people on a path to higher earnings and more meaningful participation in the economy. Working with people who are already here is the best, fastest way to grow Michigan’s economy right now.

Washtenaw County’s ALICE households need real solutions

That doesn’t mean routing people into short-term, quick-fix certificate programs. In the long term, this approach does more harm than good. It does not properly prepare people for the economically impactful, high-wage jobs that ALICE households need. It also diminishes the reputation of the educational institution that issues them. Instead of performing as an economic engine for the area, the institution+ becomes known for producing ill-prepared, under-skilled graduates.

Michigan – and Southeast Michigan in particular – needs community colleges that can prepare students at all career stages for the workforce here. It means developing new occupational programs that reflect the needs of this region. We need workers in clean and renewable energy, healthcare, skilled trades and technology-based fields.

There is plenty of opportunity (and plenty of need) to put students in occupational classrooms. Unfortunately, we seem to be saddled with a community college administration that has no interest in doing that. (WCC’s master plan for the next decade features lots of construction but is virtually devoid of academic initiatives.) As a result, the poverty rate and number of Washtenaw County households living on the margins will grow. We will lose employment opportunities and people will leave the area.

That’s not why we fund our community college so generously, and it’s time to demand more from our investment.

Photo Credit: punk27fay, via Flickr