The phone buzzes. I don’t even need to answer it. Without opening my eyes, I smile to myself and nestle deeper into the covers. No need to leave the comfort of my cozy bed.
It’s a snow day.
Early in my career as a teacher, I would lament the fact that school was canceled. What about my lesson plans? What about the bake sale we’d worked so hard on? Soon, though, I was just as excited as the kids when I got that call. In fact, although I may have stayed in my warm bed, I could rarely fall back asleep because I was so fired up about a snow day!
But snow days have some pretty scary side effects for kids who live in families with low incomes. True, they don’t have to wait for the bus or walk to school in dangerous conditions. But lack of heat and food at home can make for long, hungry days when kids usually count on eating their breakfast or lunch at school. Lack of child care means parents either call in to work, losing much-need wages, or they make the tough decision to leave kids at home or with unreliable supervision.
And when temperatures dip low, as they’re doing right now, many families resort to unsafe heating sources like kerosene heaters or gas stovetops.
Home heating assistance is one way struggling families are able to avoid the dangerous impacts of energy insecurity. The League has long been a proponent of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides funding that local Community Action Agencies, nonprofit organizations and the state government distribute to struggling families for winter heating crises, weatherization and utility bill assistance. Nearly 455,000 Michigan households in budget year 2016 were served by LIHEAP.
As far as food goes, we need to be grateful for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Michigan’s Food Assistance Program (FAP) that administers it. In November of 2018, 485,446 children in Michigan were recipients of our state’s food assistance program, which means their families get a boost when it comes to buying groceries. But on these cold days, FAP isn’t everything. Getting to the store without reliable transportation is no simple task, and some families have to weigh the risks. And in many urban areas, there are food deserts where healthy options are extremely limited.
Another barrier to healthy food access is the fact that Michigan has an asset test for food assistance, which excludes some families with low incomes from getting FAP. To receive food assistance in Michigan, families currently can’t have more than $5,000 in assets (including checking and savings accounts). This policy discourages families from saving small amounts needed to handle emergencies (like, say, the furnace going out or the heating bill being unusually high due to extreme temperatures). Eliminating this asset test could streamline the state’s efforts for providing food assistance and help families put food on the table and build up their savings at the same time.
I’m glad kids in Michigan can benefit from programs like LIHEAP and FAP, but we have a long way to go before we can know that all kids are safe at home on a snow day.
If you support programs that help kids stay warm and well-fed, consider joining the League’s new initiative, the Owner’s Manual for Michigan. We’re listening to Michiganders from all around the state to hear about what their communities need, and we’d love for you to be a part of it.