Let’s work to empower people

Editor’s Note: Jerry Norcia is president and chief operating officer for DTE Energy (NYSE: DTE), a Detroit-based diversified energy company involved in the development and management of energy-related businesses and services nationwide. He also serves as Chairman of The PuLSE Institute Business Leaders Against Poverty Initiative, a coalition of business executives working to address economic inequality issues. In addition, Norcia is chair of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and a trustee of The Skillman Foundation board of trustees, which is dedicated to the well-being and prosperity of children in Detroit. He is also on the board of directors for Saint Joseph’s Mercy Health System, the American Gas Association, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Invest Detroit – a catalyst for economic growth in Detroit and Southeast Michigan.

By Jerry Norcia

Communities are often judged by how they respond to the needs of their most vulnerable members.  By this measure, the Detroit area has much to be proud of in what its civic, non-profit and business partnerships have achieved in recent years, but we have barely scratched the surface.  We can achieve more if we all remain focused on empowering those in greatest need.

In July of 2018, I was proud to be asked to chair The PuLSE Institute’s Business Leaders Against Poverty action group. This dynamic team of leaders from a variety of industries working together has identified a number of areas on which we should focus.  One such issue is close to my heart, and those of my colleagues at DTE Energy: giving hope and support to the disadvantaged.

As a child, I lived in a village where there were limited sources of heat. The memories of going to bed with no heat in our home instilled in me a passion to enable all our DTE Energy customers to provide light and heat for their own families, no matter their economic means. 

Working with our long-standing agency partners, such as The Heat and Warmth Fund, the Salvation Army, the United Way, St. Vincent DePaul, True North and Wayne Metro, DTE identifies and reaches out to residents having difficulty making ends meet.  The agencies help these customers enroll in our Low-Income Self-Sufficiency Plan (LSP), which allows people to make affordable, monthly payments based on their income and monthly energy usage and pay down their past due balances.  DTE recently donated $10 million to several agencies to assist in these efforts and ensure support reaches those in greatest need.

The goal of DTE’s low-income assistance is one I believe is shared by all programs aiming to lift people out of poverty: to offer help beyond a handout.  Meaningful, long-lasting assistance lifts people to a point of self-sufficiency.  There’s a deep sense of pride people feel in providing for their families through their hard work and achievement.  Getting those in need to this point involves more than financial support.  We must also educate and encourage. 

I have seen this approach pay off.  More than 90 percent of the customers enrolled in our LSP program – which involves education on household budgeting and reducing energy costs – are able to complete the program and return to a cycle of self-sufficiency.

This type of help is an investment in our families, communities and overall economy.  When people see a way out of poverty, advanced education and entrepreneurship seem more attainable.  Scholarship and business mentoring programs are available from a variety of resources in Southeast Michigan, but these can be bolstered with continued support and awareness.

The compounding effect of lifting people out of poverty is undeniable:  Strong families means stronger students and neighborhoods, which leads to an educated workforce that is primed to succeed.  Business will recognize this progress and continue to invest, putting more people to work and lifting more of our citizens toward economic prosperity.

Detroit is in the midst of a renaissance, one that has the potential to benefit all, but only if we work to ensure no one is left behind.  I believe personal empowerment and self-sufficiency will be key to these efforts, and I invite all civic, non-profit and business leaders to join us on this quest. 

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