Economic Hardship Across Michigan: Perception vs. Reality

The recent Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS) by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan reveals some gaps in recognizing the scope of economic hardship faced by households across the state.



Conducted in spring 2018, the survey collected responses of local government leaders from counties, cities, villages, and townships. Responses were received from 1,327 of 1,846 jurisdictions across the state, a roughly 72% response rate.

The concluding report presents the perspective of local government leaders about poverty and economic hardship for the populations within their jurisdiction.

The results also detail perspectives on unmet needs for resources in their communities. Understanding the perspectives of community leaders is important because of the direct impact their decision making has for the community. 


How many are really struggling?

Of those surveyed, 44% said they believed that one in five (20%) community members struggled to make ends meet. The reality is that poverty is much more widespread, according to the 2019 ALICE data from the Michigan Association of United Ways. 

A United Way acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, ALICE uses a standardized set of measurements to quantify the cost of a basic household budget in each county. The latest data finds 43% of all Michigan households struggle to afford their basic household expenses, including households with working adults.

The local government perspective reported in the survey vastly underestimates the reality for families below the ALICE threshold. Additionally, 19% of local officials reported they were uncertain about the percentage of their residents who struggle to make ends meet.

Perspectives of economic hardship varied by region, community size, and urban vs. rural settings. By region, local leaders in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Peninsula were more likely to perceive economic hardship. By community size, leaders of small and large communities were more likely to recognize poverty as opposed to leaders of mid-sized communities. Leaders in rural jurisdictions also were more likely to report poverty among their residents.


Unmet needs

The survey also asked leaders what they perceived to be unmet needs for their communities. Leading the list were drug treatment programs (48% of jurisdictions), affordable housing (46%), public transportation (41%), and workforce development/job training (41%).

This data is broken down into regions and reported from specific jurisdictions, including the West Central Lower Peninsula, where rankings of unmet needs mirrored the statewide responses. 

The report mentions that oftentimes local leaders do not have the authority to provide robust service programs or simply do not have enough information about community need. 

Despite economic gains in the past decade, a “significant percentage of Michigan residents and households continue to experience economic hardship,” the report states, noting poverty is present in all types of communities across the state.

Services and cross-sector partnerships aimed at addressing unmet community needs are available to residents and communities, although not uniformly. “Although providing services to help struggling residents is not necessarily a responsibility for all local governments in Michigan, the MPPS finds that 73% of jurisdictions statewide report they are involved in some fashion.”

To bring more Michigan households above the ALICE threshold, work remains to be done to provide local leaders with resources to understand unmet needs and use that understanding to support their
communities, leverage cross-sector partnerships, and create changes big and small.

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