Julia Pickett / CC BY-SA

April 30, 2020; Reuters, The Hill, CBS Detroit, and The Root

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has spent quite a bit of time in the spotlight lately—the target of right-wing militia protesters who are tired of the state’s lockdown, is on the short list for the Democratic vice presidential nomination, and out front in using the COVID-19 health and economic crisis to move progressive public policies.

In the last week of April, Whitmer announced a $130 million program to keep childcare accessible and affordable during and after the pandemic. Grant recipients must reduce their weekly rates by at least ten percent and agree to care for children of essential workers regardless of where parents work.

Whitmer also introduced a legislative proposal to provide tuition free post-secondary education to essential workers who are serving on the frontlines of the pandemic in the next state budget cycle. That includes hospital workers but also nursing home and home care aides, grocery clerks, factory workers making personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential items, transportation and shipping workers, and all the other workers who go to work every day to keep those of us who are “nonessential” safely at home.

Whitmer described the education proposal, which would provide free tuition to working-age adults without a college degree, as modeled on the GI Bill.

“Historically when Americans put their lives on the line to defend the rest of us from a foreign enemy, we have shown our gratitude by giving them educational opportunities to improve their lives,” said Whitmer at an April 29th press conference. “Our enemy in this instance, is a virus, but our frontline workers are just as heroic, and that’s why it’s important for us to extend some gratitude, and some opportunity, once we are beyond this moment.”

Known as “Futures for Frontliners,” the program would provide free tuition for enrollment in a technical certificate program, or for a two-year or four-year college degree. Not only does the program serve as a thank-you to frontline workers, it is designed to meet the state’s ten-year goal of increasing the percent of the population with a post-secondary degree from 45 percent to 60 percent.

The $130 million Child Care Relief Fund uses funding from the CARES Act to provide non-competitive grants of $1,500 to $3,000 to family daycare and childcare centers. The funds are intended to help sustain providers serving the families of essential workers (some at no additional cost) and keep providers who are not currently operating afloat until the economy reopens.

“These funds will help sustain high-quality childcare that is vital for Michigan’s children and families,” State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice told the local CBS affiliate. “Whether it’s to help childcare providers cover fixed costs like their mortgage, utilities, insurance or payroll, we wanted the funds to be as flexible as possible to meet their specific needs.”

Despite these efforts, Whitmer has been the target of protesters angered by the state’s lockdown, intended to protect public health. Following the governor’s April 29th announcement to extend the state’s stay-at-home order an additional 28 days, hundreds of protesters, some toting guns, invaded the capitol. The so-called American Patriot Rally included MAGA hats and Trump 2020 signs and crowds of white people without face coverings violating social distancing rules.

As the governor noted, the protest may force further extension of the state lockdown if the protestors’ close contact causes another wave of infection. On April 30, 2020, the state ranked as having the fourth-highest COVID-19 caseload in the country, with 41,000 positive cases and 3,789 deaths. About 40 percent of these deaths have been among Black people, despite comprising only 14 percent of the state’s population.

The disparate impact of the virus on Black communities may explain why the protests in Lansing, the state’s capital, have been so white. Perhaps the protesters feel that white privilege will protect them from the worst impacts of COVID-19. But the disease does not discriminate; disparate outcomes are the result of structural racism that has resulted in African Americans having higher rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension that now make them more vulnerable when the virus strikes.

To get a better handle on the disparate outcomes the state is seeing, Whitmer has established the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. The taskforce will make data across racial lines more transparent. But more importantly, writes Joe Jurado in The Root, “it also seeks to identify and remove structural racism that prevents Black citizens from getting equal treatment. This includes recommending changes to Michigan law that could ease racial health disparities, removing barriers that may prevent access to proper healthcare, and developing systems to ensure long-term recovery from both a health care and economic standpoint.”—Karen Kahn