At a panel hosted by the University’s chapter of College Democrats on Thursday, community leaders from Washtenaw County discussed several topics relating to income inequality.
The event focused on several different areas, namely poverty and income inequality, as well as local policy initiatives to combat both issues.
On the panel were Yousef Rabhi, vice chair of the Board of Commissioners for Washtenaw County, Keta Cowan, chief executive officer of Synod Residential Services, a nonprofit that provides services to marginalized and disabled citizens in Southeast Michigan, and Sociology Lecturer Ian Robinson, president of the Huron Valley Central Labor Council.
The panel followed an unveiling of a survey disseminated by the College Democrats’ social justice committee, JustDems, to gauge campus awareness on poverty. The survey included 270 University students, which represents about 1 percent of the undergraduate student population. Members of JustDems were included in the survey tally.
Results showed a lack of awareness about the issue among respondents in several areas. Survey respondents identified the minimum income a family of four needs to afford necessities for living as $58,437, $34,187 under what the federal poverty line estimates. Respondents also misestimated the percentage of the national population in poverty at 22 percent, 7.5 percent higher than the true population.
However, when asked about the survey results, Robinson said students’ incorrect guesses about the poverty line are not entirely in touch with reality, citing the United Way’s Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed report. The study gauged the basic minimal income for a family to live in Michigan was around $60,600, significantly closer to the survey results than the federal poverty line estimate.
From the survey results, Cowan said she learned a majority of students identified that there is a standard of living below which they are not interested in living, yet many Americans do live below the poverty line.
“Imagine what a person who’s actually impoverished is experiencing, it’s not a quality of life that any of you would be interested in pursuing,” Cowan said.
Robinson, who recently spearheaded a report to gauge the state of income inequality in Washtenaw County, also highlighted several of the project’s recommendations during his comments.
The report found that income inequality is growing in the area and that more than half of the county have seen a decline in their pay since 2005. It suggested the creation of a local task force to combat income equality, which has since been created.
“There is not only … growing inequality but a growing share of the unequal are below the poverty line,” Robinson said.
Along with directly addressing the monetary inequities, Rahbi said an additional way to combat inequality within the community was to remove barriers that could prevent impoverished citizens from living a comfortable life.
He mentioned, in particular, the City Council’s plan to distribute Washtenaw County ID cards for citizens who do not have proof of documentation — usually undocumented immigrants, the elderly and those under the poverty line.
“All the people that live in our county are people, and they all deserve to be treated equally when it comes to government services or even just when you go to get your birthday dinner and they ask for your driver’s license,” he said. “Your ID helps you to be human, and so we dehumanize a lot of our citizens by not providing that.”