Warren Evans: Tackling Poverty Increases Regional Prosperity

Editor’s Note: Wayne County Executive Warren Evans in this guest column for The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank, makes the regional case to fight poverty in 2020. Evans was elected in 2014 as the fourth CEO of Michigan’s largest county which is home to 34 cities and nine townships. It is also ranked the 19th most populous county in the nation. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org.

By Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans

The measure of any community is how it takes care of its most vulnerable members. You cannot ignore those who are suffering around you while claiming to be a success – or at least you shouldn’t.

Lifting the impoverished out of poverty remains one of the key steps for Wayne County to sustain its comeback. And while I’d prefer people take on poverty because it’s the morally right thing to do, there’s a strong economic case to be made in this region to attack poverty.

The top challenge holding back the business community is talent. The number one issue holding back our region is helping people of color and the poor – a nearly completely ignored potential talent pool – access the increasing level of local opportunities.

We must create a mutually beneficial business climate with an ecosystem where the solutions to both challenges symbiotically help each other. We need to shift our focus in economic development from business attraction to cultivating our homegrown talent.

Our problem isn’t that we suffer from a lack of intelligent, creative people. We suffer from the fact many intelligent, creative people are overlooked because they haven’t been provided with the skills or resources they need to reach their full potential. For some his has persisted for generations.

There are several areas my administration is focused on to help take on poverty because we believe doing so is also the pathway to increasing regional prosperity. We also see these steps as critical to increasing equity in 2020 and beyond.

Regional Transit a Must in 2020

In November, I joined with Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, Washtenaw County Board of Commissioner Chair Jason Morgan, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to support a proposed revision to Michigan’s Municipal Partnership Act that would give the region greater flexibility in funding expanded and improved regional transit.

Without more transit, Wayne County is not as strong as it needs to be. Every problem that we face, from lack of social mobility and poverty rates to congestion on roads into our urban centers and the inability to retain talent – can be addressed through a comprehensive, fully connected regional transit system. 

Our goal is to have a plan supported by the coalition of the willing in November 2020 preceded by a robust public discussion on a transit plan and what it can offer Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.

Overhaul of CDBG to Start Paying Off in 2020

Another important tool we are using to combat poverty is the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), which Wayne County has overhauled to make sure it fulfills its original purpose of assisting low and moderate income communities. Sadly that wasn’t necessarily the case when I took office.

In addition to other programs, CDBG funds will provide for the operation of various senior citizen centers throughout the County as well as the Wayne County Family Center which houses homeless families. It will also fund demolition projects critical to removing blight and protecting our property values. We are excited for the second year of a revamped program and what results it may bring.

Pay As You Stay Designed to Keep People in Their Homes

Most of us are aware of the long-standing problems caused by property tax foreclosures. Far too many families lost their homes to foreclosure, and that is a loss that is extraordinarily difficult – if not impossible – to recover from for families with scarce resources. Blight spreads like a disease when unchecked and devastates entire neighborhoods.

The process by which we work to collect taxes and honor our fiduciary responsibilities to all taxpayers is a delicate balance that is only made more difficult when we try to keep families in their homes who are unable to pay their taxes. It’s an emotional and complex process, complicated by bureaucracy where the human element can be lost. But we need to do more to address it.

In October, we announced legislation that will wipe away all interest, penalties and fees for Detroit homeowners who qualify for the Poverty Tax Exemption. We are calling it Pay As You Stay (PAYS). This program will dramatically reduce the monthly payments while reducing the amount of years the residents will be in the payment plans. We hope PAYS will become law in 2020.

Ensuring Quality Legal Representation for All Residents

In addition to housing, people of color and the poor too often suffer from an unhealthy relationship with the criminal justice system. This is due to a number of issues, and certainly race and class are prominent among them. But the traumatic ripple effects of a hugely overburdened system cannot be overstated.

In 2017, my office commissioned the Sixth Amendment Center in 2017 to examine Wayne County’s public defender office. Funded by a state grant, the study concluded that chronically stagnant state funding and increased caseloads were leading to deficiencies in legal services that could jeopardize the right to counsel.

This November, my office announced the opening of the Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) of Detroit. NDS will handle approximately 4,000 to 5,000 adult felony cases per year, which equals 25% of Wayne County Circuit Court cases. NDS provides a holistic public defense. Clients benefit from the services of entire teams that can confront a myriad of legal issues, in addition to defense of a criminal prosecution. Teams consist of lawyers, social workers, advocates, administrators, and investigators, all of whom take time to understand clients as people and meet their legal and social needs.

Chipping Away at Poverty Starts with the 2020 Census

The census counts our population and households, providing the basis for reapportioning congressional seats, redistricting, and distributing more than $675 billion in federal funds annually to support states, counties and communities’ vital programs – impacting housing, education, transportation, employment, health care and public policy.

Poverty and equity in Wayne County are not issues that will be easily solved, but any progress over the next decade will require a complete count in the 2020 Census. It’s an issue that’s going to take intentional policy approaches and societal commitment across administrations and decades. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to chip away at this issue bit by bit. In 2020, that’s what we will continue to do.

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