Michigan Governor Whitmer’s Deceptive Strategy to Tackle Poverty

Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank. A former federal government lawyer with the Social Security Administration who wrote legally binding opinions for administrative law judges across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Patterson also brings a wealth of knowledge representing indigent defendants and vulnerable populations seeking relief from the government. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq.

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Arguably no one in this nation’s history was a greater champion of the poor than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated during the impending 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in Memphis, Tennessee, fighting alongside striking sanitation workers demanding higher wages and better treatment. In the final chapter of his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” Dr. King explicitly outlined the political quandary and definitive roadmap for the solution to poverty:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it. … The question on the agenda must read: why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? … There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”

What greater environment could there have been to boldly proclaim something never heard of in state government- a cabinet level poverty appointee- than to make the announcement at an educational institution named after King, the nation’s greatest anti-poverty advocate, and located in Detroit, one of the largest poverty cities in America with roughly 35% of residents living in poverty.

Bankole Thompson (left) served as moderator of the February 19, 2018 Democratic Gubernatorial Town Hall on Poverty at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School.

Given this historical context and modern dilemma, Detroit’s King High School formed the perfect setting for then Michigan gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer to announce her bold February 2018 declaration of a cabinet-level poverty appointment that would clearly prioritize fighting poverty at the highest levels of state government. Additionally, with the blue wave of 2018 and the ever-increasing demand to close the gap between the rich and the poor, the next democratic governor of Michigan sat at the apex of golden opportunity to create transformational change in the lives of Michigan’s most economically vulnerable citizens.

This declaration was repeated frequently throughout the campaign trail not as a routine agenda item to check off a to do list, but as one of the first appointments that would be made if Whitmer was elected governor. And once elected, Governor Whitmer doubled down on this promise with a column in The PuLSE Institute nearly one year ago, stating “I’m committed to ensuring poverty issues are represented at the cabinet level in my administration.”

However, nearly one full year later, dozens of appointments later, no such cabinet level poverty appointment has been fulfilled. One year later, Governor Whitmer has failed to follow through on this commitment, and reversed her positions on many issues she championed on the campaign trail. No greater glaring contradictions exist than her stances on education and poverty, two issues joined at the hip of marginalization and disenfranchisement, particularly for African Americans, in our society.

The right to literacy case, a nationally recognized legal battle to declare the right to literacy for Detroit public school students, majority poor and African American, found an ally in candidate Gretchen Whitmer on the campaign trail. She declared that she supported the right to literacy for all students, a counter to the position of the previous administration, which argued that no right to literacy existed. However, once elected, Whitmer refused to make right the wrongs of the past administration by failing to argue for the right to literacy for the students and instead arguing that the State was no longer a proper party to the case. Although the lower court ruled against the students’ right to literacy, it accepted as facts that students were attending school with vermin, no heat in the classrooms, and no teachers to instruct them in critical but basic subjects like math. With no appreciation for the historical context and background of the denial of access to education and substandard learning conditions of poor and African American students, Governor Whitmer elected to cover her own interests in office rather than stand for the rights of these students to learn without such egregious conditions from the entity tasked with serving them and ensuring their equal opportunity under law, the State of Michigan.

Yet as outrageous as her refusal to support the right to literacy was, the most notorious unmasking of Governor Whitmer’s educational and poverty related plans has been the unnecessary failure, the self-imploding educational minefield of her proposal to shut down Benton Harbor’s only high school. Benton Harbor, an overwhelmingly poor and majority African American city, got an unwelcome visit from Governor Whitmer this spring to be notified that shutting down their only high school was the only way to avoid emergency management and to right the wrongs of their school system. The same Governor Whitmer who fashioned herself an education advocate and anti-emergency management, was now dishing an ultimatum to this poor black city to accept her proposal to shut down the school, or she would force her way in and take over.

With no scintilla of cultural compassion or understanding of what it meant for a privileged white woman with the ultimate executive power to come into a poor, majority black city and threaten executive takeover of their sole educational institution, Governor Whitmer was certain that her proposal was necessary and just. The audacity of this grandiose display of arrogance and total lack of awareness is that this was one of her first major acts as governor of Michigan, occurring not even six months into her first term in office. Worst of all, Governor Whitmer was eventually stopped by mounting community pressure, with a later opinion by the Office of Attorney General Dana Nessel confirming that Whitmer had no authority to shut down the school in the first place.

Detroiters listening to then candidate Gretchen Whitmer promise a poverty secretary at the February 19, 2018 Democratic Gubernatorial Town Hall on Poverty at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School.

After the events of Benton Harbor, Governor Whitmer proved herself to be a politician with no policies, just a candidate who was simply seeking office with no plans to utilize that power and authority to fight for the least of these in Michigan. She has proven not to be an ally of the poor and has turned her back on many allies who supported her and helped her get into office. With this is mind, every move that she makes must be viewed with the utmost critical analysis, or else risk more failed promises in which the people who suffer most are those most in need.

This is why her December 18, 2019 announcement of a poverty task force on the east side of Detroit must be examined with the finest, sharpest microscope of scrutiny. Not at the outset as promised, but on the heels of her tumultuous first year in office, Whitmer now finds it convenient as she enters 2020 to announce plans for a poverty task force, which is not what was promised by any means. Governor Whitmer has faced scathing criticism due to her callous position in Benton Harbor and her perceived submission to billionaire Dan Gilbert and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on auto insurance reform rather than protecting victims of catastrophic injuries who had the most to lose. Added to this debacle is her failed strategy in recent budget negotiations, which saw her slash funding from vulnerable communities like autistic children and veterans among others, in an apparent attempt to one-up her Republican legislative counterparts.

With Governor Whitmer’s self-destructive and untenable positions, misguided strategies, and failed campaign promises, she cannot be trusted to seriously invest in fighting poverty with the announcement of a poverty task force. The notion itself is a disingenuous gesture and nothing more than a placebo to pacify her critics. If she was serious about fighting the devastating levels of poverty in Detroit and in the State of Michigan, she would have held true to her word and appointed a cabinet-level poverty secretary out of the gate as soon as she was sworn in to office.

What she is now offering is not only a betrayal of her public vow to appoint a poverty secretary, but an insult honestly, given that she, without pressure, introduced the notion of a cabinet-level poverty secretary as once of her first acts in office. A task force has none of the power and authority of a cabinet-level position, which would have direct reporting duties to the governor on how to combat poverty from the executive level. Instead, the offering of a task force consisting of handpicked bureaucrats from various state agencies that are willing to serve at the governor’s behest is an afterthought at best, as bureaucrats are employed to enforce existing rules, rather than advocate for change when the rules don’t fulfill the constitutional guarantees of equality. At worst, the poverty task force must be viewed by Detroiters as an offense to the common sense and conviction of constituents committed to tackling poverty in their communities.

Notably offering public support to Governor Whitmer in covering her failure to prioritize poverty at the cabinet level were state lawmakers from the Detroit delegation, including State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo and State Senator Marshall Bullock, chair of the delegation. Both members were prominently quoted in the release the governor’s office issued about the announcement of the poverty task force. Senator Bullock, a former City of Detroit District Manager, is a well-known defender of Duggan, a mayor well-known for his apathy on tackling poverty.

Both of these members of the Detroit delegation pledged their allegiance to the governor to ensure the success of the task force, but they never committed that same energy in holding the governor accountable to keeping her word of appointing a cabinet-level poverty secretary. It is important to underscore that state legislators do not work for the governor, a fact Republican lawmakers know all too well. They do not need to give the governor a way out when things are not going well, but that is exactly what seems to be happening with some members of the Detroit delegation, who if anything, should have been the fiercest critics of the governor for failing to fulfill a major campaign promise because they represent constituents in the largest poverty city in Michigan.

Now that Governor Whitmer has failed time and time again to keep her word, and her inconsiderate policies have backfired, she is seeking a way to regain confidence and trust in her administration, aided by the help of some Detroit lawmakers under the false spirit of bipartisanship and coming together. But, it will not succeed because it is not in the least bit genuine. Similar to the grand announcement of the false promise of free tuition at Wayne State University, which Governor Whitmer prominently attended and applauded, her announcement of the poverty task force is not transformative and is nothing more than a public relations charade to save face amidst a disastrous first year in office. 

Meeko Williams, Detroit water rights advocate and chief director of Hydrate Detroit, was among hundreds of Detroiters who showed up at the February 19, 2018 Democratic Gubernatorial Town Hall on Poverty at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School.

And similar to what we saw during the dishonest Wayne State announcement, the media has willingly served as a mouthpiece for the governor’s talking points on the poverty task force. Not one time did the media refer to Governor Whitmer’s well-known promise to appoint a cabinet level poverty secretary or even analyze this grand failure in contrast to the announcement of a much less significant task force instead. With a constant stream of dishonesty stemming from the Whitmer administration’s failure to keep its promises, to the media’s complicity in masking Whitmer’s failures by neglecting to point out basic truths in its reporting, the public must absorb information from these sources through a stringent wringer of critical analysis. Due diligence and commitment to improving the quality of life for all citizens, particularly the neediest and most vulnerable amongst us, calls for nothing less.

So, as Dr. King poignantly asked us 50 years ago, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

The first step is to tell the truth and call out the lies from those not simply elected to lead us, but more importantly, to serve us. With the exacerbating and compounding problems that poverty presents, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to such egregious inconsistencies or worse, to go along to get along. These tactics will not bring forth the much-needed change to uplift our citizenry.

Next, instead of simply saying we need to come together as a solution (the only solution many would have you believe), we need to acknowledge that we are apart in the first place. We must analyze what is causing that divide and how we can close the gap to come closer. Poverty and racism must explicitly be acknowledged as flagrant and deliberate divisive contributors in our society. We must honestly and openly discuss these facts and forcefully reject the deflective tactics of people who look like us or claim to represent us in order to create meaningful and lasting solutions for change.

Finally, in the words of the governor herself, “We always have to ensure that our leaders know we’re paying attention and we’re being held accountable.” The political process, civic duty, and participatory democracy does not start and end at the polls. While every vote we cast is an investment in our future, we must follow the trajectory of our investment and withdraw if it is no longer serving us. That includes expressing legitimate discontent with our leaders in office before the next election occurs.

Governor Whitmer has failed to fight poverty and ensure equality for all Michiganders. We must let her know that we are paying attention, and we will hold her accountable for every move she is making that is counter to her word. The same is true of our state lawmakers who have allowed Whitmer to break her promise, and our mayor, who has not made tackling poverty even as much as a footnote in his administration. But it is not enough to wait until 2020, 2021, or 2022 to let them know. The time starts now.

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