The 1980s: “Working Together for the Good of All People”
In the 1980s, the League celebrated 75 years of advocacy and service against a backdrop of familiar challenges and new opportunities.
President Reagan took office and passed the largest tax cut in U.S. history. The first Space Shuttle was launched, personal computers became available, and Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
The unemployment rate fluctuated from 10.4% in 1982 to just 5.3% in 1989. Martin Luther King Day was celebrated for the first time, Geraldine Ferrarobecame the first woman to run for vice [resident of the United States, and the first American school teacher in space was killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger unexpectedly exploded.
The early ’80s brought another national recession, and Michigan was hit harder than most states because of heavy losses suffered by the auto industry. Luxury car sales plummeted and foreign manufacturers captured a larger share of the American auto market, forcing U.S. automakers to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers. Tens of thousands of these workers fled the state to find jobs elsewhere, and smaller businesses, dependent on the Big Three, shut their doors as Michigan’s unemployment rate rose.
Many human service agencies were struggling to address growing needs in local communities, and the League convened a meeting to discuss a response to the human emergency declared by Gov. William Milliken.
The state’s tax base shrank at the beginning of the decade and the loss of revenue created a deficit of nearly $1 billion, forcing newly elected Gov. James Blanchard to cut $225 million from the budget and lay off thousands of government workers.
During this time, the state Legislature passed a 38% income tax increase. The League opposed reductions in essential services resulting from federal budget actions and took leadership in forming the Michigan Coalition for Fair Implementation of Block Grants. The League also embarked on an awareness campaign to educate the public about the many myths surrounding welfare and the plight of women in the welfare system. Examples include two reports entitled “Women, Work and Welfare” and “Myths and Facts about Welfare Dependency in Michigan.”
The League also pioneered the development of a three-year Health Care Access Project, which tested the feasibility and cost of extending basic health care services to the uninsured. The project was a two-year demonstration project in two Michigan counties – Marquette and Genesee – aimed at creating a coordinated series of programs to improve access to health care. Many of the policies and recommendations of the project are reflected in current health care access programs in counties across Michigan.
Michigan’s economy showed signs of turning around in 1983, as the recession eased and American automakers became profitable again. By mid-1984, the state’s unemployment rate began to drop, and the state faced a difficult situation very familiar to one Michiganders just lived through: restructuring the economy to lessen dependence on the Big Three while returning Michigan to prosperity. By the end of the decade, there were signs of success as less than one in four workers were employed in factories, and new jobs were created in small engineering and technology companies. The state established a training program to upgrade the skills of factory workers who had lost their jobs, and General Motors collaborated with the UAW and state government on another job training program. Even though transportation manufacturing was still Michigan’s most important industry, the economy was definitely diversifying and showing signs of improvement.
The League serves as a source of information and analysis on social policy issues, and it has been a valuable partner over the years for nonprofits that provide support and advocacy for the state’s under-served. During the ’80s the League began publishing its highly successful resource guide, the Helping Handbook, which assisted direct service agencies in helping clients access public services.
To further assist non-profit agencies, the League created the Emergency Cash Flow Loan Program for 501(c)(3)’s, which provided small, short-term loans to help these groups better serve at-risk populations. Building solid relationships and working together with legislators, community leaders, and other nonprofits has allowed the League to broaden its reach and continue its mission despite economic challenges at the state and national level.
In commemoration of the League’s 75th anniversary, State Representatives Ilona Varga and Mary Brown offered a resolution on the House floor. In addition to recognizing a long history of service, the resolution stated: “This forward thinking, compassionate organization knows that human services are not met by only one group, but by many, and works diligently to encourage all these groups to work together for the good of all people. We applaud their myriad contributions to the people of Michigan.”
— Sara Metz