March — April 2022 Commentary

Access to the latest technology, like fiber optic cables and 5G — the fifth generation of mobile connectivity — spurs innovation, enhances education, and serves as a superhighway for acquiring goods and services. To better compete in the digital economy, Michigan needs to step up its game in connecting urban and rural areas to the latest high-speed offerings.
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Illustration by James Yang
Illustration by James Yang

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”
— Nelson Mandela


Technology – Digital Connections

Access to the latest technology, like fiber optic cables and 5G — the fifth generation of mobile connectivity — spurs innovation, enhances education, and serves as a superhighway for acquiring goods and services. To better compete in the digital economy, Michigan needs to step up its game in connecting urban and rural areas to the latest high-speed offerings.

According to various sources, including the Brookings Institution and Public Policy Associates, 70 of Michigan’s 83 counties have digital connectivity rates that fall below the national average. Rural areas in the state with fewer residents top the list of counties with limited access to broadband — Lake, Missaukee, Oceans, Newaygo, Kalkaska, and Sanilac counties are below 50 percent — but more dense areas require work, as well.

In Wayne County, with Detroit as its largest city, 96.6 percent of 676,587 households have broadband access, but when the number of households with children are factored in, nearly 30 percent of such homes — or 23,004 residences — lack internet connectivity. Other counties that lag in high-speed connectivity are Ingham (Lansing), representing 22,328 households; Muskegon, with 5,906 homes; Saginaw, with 5,584 households; Genesee (Flint), with 4,197 houses; and Bay County, with 3,599 homes.

The reasons include the high cost of connecting rural areas, inadequate investments, and concentrated poverty. Not surprisingly, children that are part of the digital divide will struggle in the classroom, at home, and in social settings. In the past, private and government leaders blamed a lack of funding to boost internet connectivity.

The argument held water in struggling areas, given in recent decades people with resources moved to more prosperous regions, leaving poorer people behind. Compounding the problem is a lower tax base in low-income neighborhoods, making it difficult to finance investments in broadband and other needs, and a relative lack of businesses to spur digital upgrades.

The lack of internet access in Detroit was so acute during the outbreak of the pandemic, for example, that the business and philanthropic community stepped up to provide internet access and a computer to around 51,000 public school students. The investment helped supply digital tools and learning platforms in Detroit, but other areas of the state weren’t as fortunate.

While a lack of funding was the culprit state and local officials pointed to for holding back greater access to the internet, that’s no longer the case. With Michigan sitting on more than $20 billion in surplus funds, the result of around $15 billion in unspent federal stimulus and infrastructure capital and some $5.8 billion in anticipated state revenue, elected officials have the resources to establish a leading position in broadband connectivity.

To provide for even greater access, private, public, and civic leaders should target digital investments in households and schools, and work with nonprofit organizations that operate in urban and rural areas, like Life Remodeled and Beyond Basics. In this way, as politicians are fond of stating, no child will be left behind.


Government – Prosecution Woes

Acting to upend political foes through investigations and grand jury proceedings can have unintended consequences. Consider the move by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel as she seeks to criminally prosecute state officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, over their handling of the lead contamination in Flint’s water.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around at all levels of government, Nessel should be careful of what she seeks. In the same way public officials delayed remediation of Flint’s tainted water, similar actions have occurred in Benton Harbor over the past three years, under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration.

Nessel has charged nine individuals in the Flint case, including two misdemeanors for willful neglect of duty against Snyder (each carrying up to a year in prison), and nine counts of involuntary manslaughter against Nick Lyon, Snyder’s chief health official at the time. The state must pay the legal costs of Snyder, which could total $8 million, and up to $48 million to exclude documents seized by prosecutors that are protected by attorney-client privilege.

Nessel and Hammoud asserted the prosecutions would be swift, but it could be up to three years before the cases are adjudicated. Apart from Whitmer and others facing similar charges once they leave office, citizens are right to ask if state officials have their best interests in mind, as the money required in the case against Snyder could have been used to replace the lead water pipes in Benton Harbor.


Health Care – Misspent Time

Offering free at-home tests for COVID-19 prior to the holiday season was a reasonable plan of action that would have provided Americans with the assurances they needed to determine whether they could safely gather with family and friends. Instead, the Biden administration set up a complicated plan to have millions of the tests available in mid-January.

To recoup their costs, people could be reimbursed through their insurance if they paid for a test up-front. Apart from being inadequate, the plan failed to account for pre-holiday demand, and long lines formed nationwide as citizens sought to buy the tests.

Rather than consulting with logistics experts, the White House thought it could go it alone. The trouble was, on top of the clear medical need for access to testing, the Biden administration’s plan failed to consider the nation’s already tight logistics sector. As a result, as demand soared prior to the holidays, millions of tests sat in warehouses.

No one knows how many people would have modified their holiday travel plans had there been adequate testing in place prior to the holidays, but it’s clear the Biden administration could have done a much better job of getting tests into the hands of Americans for free and without delay.

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