(THIS STORY WAS PRODUCED JUNE 2)
INTRO: On Mackinac Island, it’s the start of Day 2 of the pro-business Detroit Chamber Policy Conference. Attendees there are applauding republican fiscal responsibility. Meanwhile, in Flint, it’s Day 2 of a conference on transforming communities. Attendees there have a different goal. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
The National Employment Law Project, known as NELP, set up the conference yesterday and today as an alternative to the Mackinac Conference. They chose Flint for it’s pro-union tradition and for its pioneering land bank program that began a decade ago. NELP’s executive staff flew in from New York. They are graduates of prestigious law schools. But their mission is to raise the living standards of working class people.
One of the speakers invited was Glenn Puitt. He works for the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City. He’s spent the past six months documenting the lives of working people in rural northern Michigan. Yesterday at the conference, Puitt described one of the famiies he wrote about.
“Eight and 9 dollar an hour jobs…completely dependent on the public transit system, usually takes an hour longer than it would in a car. They lived in a trailer out in the woods. Poorly insulated, problem with the water pump, energy bill was $800-900 a month. They ended up homeless living in a tent for for months with this young child.”
Puitt says the family finally got placed in a decent apartment closer to town. But he says many rural Michiganders don’t want to ask for help. Richard Carson came up from Dearborn where he runs energy efficiency programs. Carson said trailer homes up north have similar problems as houses in metro Detroit.
“Our houses are poorly insulated, and they are paying these astronomical electric and gas bills, but that’s the only difference. And transportation is a huge problem….having people spend 3 hours coming to and from work because a lot of our jobs are in our suburban areas.”
Modern market capitalism has widened the gap between rich and poor. And not much tax revenue been collected for public transit, especially in Michigan. Another trend has developed in the last couple years. Foundations are stepping in where business and government do not. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is sponsoring the Flint conference today. The Kellogg Foundation is shining the spotlight on struggling families. And the Kresge Foundation is willing to spend $35 million on the light rail project in Detroit.