What a state office of poverty elimination needs

By Mary D. Waters

As a grade school child, I picked cotton in the fields around Greenville, Alabama. I had very little choice in the matter; our family needed every cent that our labor could muster to help make ends meet during a very difficult time in the segregated deep South. We endured the poverty and deep-seated racism that was a mainstay in our lives.

My father landed a job in the automobile industry. We moved to Detroit where I attended Sherrard Junior High and Detroit Northern High Schools prior to earning an accounting certification from the Detroit Business Institute.  I had no intention of ever returning to the cotton fields and knew education was key. I worked my way through the University of Michigan Dearborn earning a B.A. degree before embarking on a career that included serving in the Michigan House of Representatives as the first Black woman to ever serve as Minority Floor Leader of that body.

It is because I know first-hand the devastating impact of poverty coupled with representing a legislative district that encompassed sections of downtown and the Eastside of Detroit reflecting the reality of “Two Detroits” that lays the foundation of my advocacy that the State of Michigan must officially take on poverty with a sense of urgency deserving of any cancerous growth. We must address human needs that have been unjustifiably ignored generation after systemically inequitable generation.

The data is macabrely clear. The poor and working poor die sooner in Michigan than those that are not mired in poverty. This singular reality ought to motivate us on a humane basis to take on poverty. I am a breast cancer survivor. During my presidency of the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of Sister’s Network (largest organization of Black breast cancer survivors in the nation) every speech included the death gap reality. Black women die forty percent more than white women from breast cancer. Everyone cannot afford pink nor early detection medical care.

Infant mortality levels that have approached that of Third World nations throughout urban Michigan have been tolerated too long. The homeless have frozen to death on church steps.   Seniors with no reliable transportation to healthcare suffer and die all too often because official Michigan looks the other way. Poverty kills.

As many as seventy percent (70%) of Detroit children wake up in abject poverty ridden households headed by single unemployed parents ignored by suspect data propaganda touting Detroit’s recovery. Those same children are bundled off to school unprepared for kindergarten and schools are ill prepared to address the academic challenge of the poor rendering 5-year-olds fodder for the grade school to prison pipeline.

The mugshot and rap sheet for poverty (childhood poverty, single mother poverty, water shutoffs and poverty, education and poverty, segregated housing, homelessness, crime and poverty, illiteracy and poverty, livable wages) is too much for this column but one need only realize that the stench of poverty envelops Michigan and we must take steps now before 1967 is upon us and we ask “why?” as the troops march in.

During the 2018 campaign for Michigan Governor one candidate made a commitment to fight poverty by establishing a cabinet level position to take on poverty. That candidate was Michigan Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer.

I served three-terms with Michigan Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer during my tenure as a state representative of Detroit and know the Governor-elect as a person of her word. I also know the ways of state government. As a legislator I learned every agency establishing piece of legislation or governmental operations must be adequately funded with a precise mission to accomplish anything beyond mere symbolism.

The people of the State of Michigan deserve a fully funded unit of government to take on poverty and all its ill effects from public schools that fail our children to healthcare to ensure the well-being of all Michigan citizens. No, the state can’t go it alone, but the state can marshal the resources of the public, private and philanthropic sectors to build a team capable of measuring outcomes that diminish the negative effects of poverty.

The governor-elect needs to immediately assemble a team to define the mission and budgetary requirements of Michigan’s Eliminate Poverty Office understanding that poverty is expensive and a drain on state resources. That team must be inclusive and not class biased so that the depth of solutions is not an ivory tower exercise. In the long haul it will be more cost effective to treat poverty than endure poverty. We are fortunate to have agenda compasses in place with The University of Michigan Poverty Solutions Center and Detroit’s PuLSE Institute, the anti-poverty think tank as resource guides for this undertaking. Let’s avail ourselves of those entities. Let’s get to work.

Mary Waters is a former minority floor leader in the Michigan House of Representatives where she worked with then State Senator Gretchen Whitmer, the incoming governor of the state.


  1. Thank you for your beautiful, moving rendition of the effects of poverty on our youth. I, too, hail from the south and have memories of picking cotton with my family to ensure our survival. No regrets, but immense gratitude for parents who knew the value of hard work,and the critical necessity for hope. My regrets are that America in spite of being richer than ever in its history, continues to – rather than find a way to “lift all boats” — allow our youth to live without dreams or hope.

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