The Michigan Dream Logo2

by John Austin

Michigan has been a land of opportunity since before the state was birthplace to the automotive industry. It’s been a place where hard work was rewarded by good jobs, where towns flourished into true communities and became great places to raise families.

It’s been a place of absolute beauty and wonder, too. A two-peninsula state filled with waterways and forests, bounded by big skies and Great Lakes, where we could escape with our families and friends, and see and understand firsthand the true meaning and power of nature.

So it’s easy to see how our attachment to Michigan is driven by a long-standing pride in our lakes and outdoors. It’s easy to see how that same collective self-worth is rooted in our schools and universities too, and in the things we created with our hard work, such as automobiles. The places we live and play.

Now take a look at the state-funded “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign, which markets our state as a travel and tourism destination.

Those Michigan-branding ads tug at our hearts because they speak to the very things that are extraordinary, and authentic, about our state. The very things that we care a lot about, that help define who we are as citizens. They are the very things that also happen to be the foundation upon which the Michigan economy was built.

Michigan’s Extraordinary Assets

Hardwork & Innovation

This is the sweat equity that led to great industries, such as the automobile and the assembly line. That attracted migrants and immigrants from all over the country and the world. The jobs that paid a wage that could easily support a family, provide for retirement, maybe afford a cottage or a boat.


This is the high quality free public education found in every community and, for years, the “almost-free” high quality higher education at our community colleges and public universities. Our education meant a better life for the next generation, and sparked tremendous innovation.

Great Transportation & Infrastructure

First our waterways, then railroads, then the road and highway system. We invented the concrete highway, and pioneered the national road system to serve our creation, the car, which gave us freedom, mobility, the ability to travel up north and across the country.

The Outdoors

In Michigan we treasured and made accessible our outdoors, our Great Lakes, our history and multi-cultural sense of place, and space. We built a glorious parks system, and supported arts and culture institutions for us to enjoy, as a respite from our own hard work.


But what those “Pure Michigan” ads are saying, and what we know right now about the reality of our state, are not the same things. In fact, today, all these things that we believe in and care about, things that continue to drive our economy, the very things that make Michigan a singular state as both a destination and a place to call home, are all at risk. And the problems can’t be glossed over.

The Reality of the Michigan Dream


Our First-Rate Public Schools

Yes Michigan built a strong school system, including the first free public high school (Kalamazoo Central High), and the neighborhood “community school” (an idea conceived in Flint, Mich.) that put our schools at the center of community life. But budget cuts have weakened our education system across the board, and we now see schools close. We see class sizes expand, while valuable arts, music, and special programs get eliminated. Our teachers are demoralized. And learning suffers.


Our Colleges & Universities

Michigan built a public university system that was the envy of the country. It provided inexpensive, world-class education and a ticket to opportunity for all. Today we’ve cut support for higher education, slashing state funding. Tuitions doubled, so many working families can’t afford higher education anymore. Students who do graduate face growing mountains of debt.


Our Unspoiled Outdoors

Our once first-rate parks system — our beautiful rivers, lakes, Great Lakes and coastline — perhaps a source of our greatest pride — is in jeopardy. We’ve cut funding for clean water, parks and conservation. Pure Michigan is not real when fecal matter fouls water, and beaches are closed. It’s not real when Parks aren’t maintained, and oil spills into the rivers.

Thriving Cities

Our Thriving Cities & Communities.

We had communities you could be proud of. Neighborhoods great for raising families. Today we’ve gutted funding for vital services: police, fire, trash and sewer. Many communities can’t keep the lights on, much less provide arts and culture, parks and recreation and other activities, that make our communities places we’d want to live. And where our kids would want to stay.


Our Great Roads & Highways

They’re crumbling and they’re an embarrassment. Funding to repair them is slow coming. And we’ve slashed funding for public transportation.

Now, after years of neglecting our economic foundations, our own incomes are falling. What are those economic foundations? They’re simply the investments that we make in our people, in our communities and in our beautiful state. That neglect has meant good jobs are difficult to find. People are anxious and scared. The dream of affording a cottage or a boat has vanished for many, and fewer can afford a dinner out, much less the chance to escape to the state’s great outdoors.

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Education Community  Infrastructure  Arts & Culture  Environment

Michigan Dream At Risk: Damage Still Being Done

Yes, the “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign shows us the “ideal” Michigan, the one that native Michiganders all tasted growing up. We love that Michigan, and we want that Michigan. It’s all about what made us a prosperous place. We know Michigan was once the model for conservation, a leader in creating incredible parks, and turning the state’s beautiful outdoors into destinations. And “Pure Michigan” advertises our great universities, those that we purposefully built with our tax dollars as high quality and low-cost avenues for opportunity. It features our historic communities, thriving with life, culture, arts and activities. It shows us working, inventing, creating the products of today and tomorrow.

The problem with these themes and images is they aren’t as true as they used to be, or as they need to be. The truth is we are a diminished state. We no longer have the highest wages and incomes, and we are no longer a leader in the categories – the very attributes – that once made us great, such as entrepreneurship, education, infrastructure, conservation, arts and culture. We don’t draw new people to our state, and too many of our kids leave when they’re old enough.

The Michigan Dream doesn’t have to wither and die. We can rebuild the Michigan we care about. We only have to look to other states to see that it can done


The Michigan Dream doesn’t have to wither and die. We can rebuild the Michigan we care about. We only have to look to other states to see that it can done:

In 2008, Minnesota voted to invest $6 billion over 25 years in clean water, outdoors, parks and arts. They recently reformed their tax code, making it fairer for working people, and raising another $2.1 billion more for schools, cities and universities.

In 2012, California voted to raise more than $6 billion for schools and universities.

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New Jersey raised $750 million to rebuild postsecondary education institutions.
And Ohio citizens have voted twice, in 2005 and 2010, to invest $2.3 billion to create new jobs and companies from university research and innovation.


Michigan Dream At Risk: The Facts

As we began 2014, Michigan’s “public goods” – the “pillars” that reinforce our economy – continue to show the cracks and corrosion of long neglect. You could call this neglect a state-run economic boycott. It’s a disinvestment that is having real, detrimental impacts on our citizens, on our quality of life, and on our prospects for economic growth.

This path of disinvestment contributes to Michigan’s poor performances across the board, particularly in comparison to states whose economies and incomes are growing. And many of those states are now re-investing in their people, their communities, and their infrastructure. Meanwhile, the statistical truths about our state are pretty brutal:

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Michigan has fallen from 19th to 37th in the nation in personal income

Data Driven Detroit recently reported that over the past dozen years, Michigan has fallen from 19th to 37th in the nation in personal income. That’s well below the national average. Michigan household’s income and family buying power has dropped more than any other state.


A 15 percent drop in state investment in transportation systems from 2004 to 2014

Our infrastructure is still crumbling: Michigan has a $1.5 billion unfilled hole to just maintain our crumbling roads and bridges, according to 2014 research by Center For Michigan. Public transportation systems are woefully inadequate, with some of the worst measures of transit availability. And home-to-work public transportation travel times are among the worst in the country. We have seen a 15 percent drop in state investment in transportation systems from 2004 to 2014.

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Local revenue sharing has declined 31 percent from 2004 to 2014

The same Center for Michigan report showed that local revenue sharing has declined 31 percent from 2004 to 2014. We’ve crippled vital public safety, fire and water-sanitation services. We’ve hurt libraries, parks, arts and culture programs, particularly in our urban core cities. And, according to ArtServe Michigan, despite the fact arts and cultural institutions contribute more than $2 billion in tourism revenue to Michigan’s economy, Michigan has reduced state support for the arts, from $26 million in 2001 to $8.15 million over the past dozen years.

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16 percent decline in K-12 investment from 2004 to 2014

We’ve also seen a 16 percent decline in K-12 (kindergarten through high school) investment from 2004 to 2014, which contributed to deficits in 50 state school districts. We’re suffering growing class sizes, cuts to arts, music, counseling, and support services, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP). These cuts are hitting poor, minority, special education and other disadvantaged students and school communities hardest, concentrating the most in-need students in poorly resourced and staffed learning environments


29 percent real investment drop in higher education funding from 2004 to 2014

The MLPP report also showed a 29 percent real investment drop in higher education funding from 2004 to 2014. Tuition has doubled at state universities, while needs-based grants have been cut 20 percent, in contrast to other states that have raised scholarships 84 percent! State support for community colleges has been flat for a dozen years, while enrollments have increased 50 percent.

“Michigan cannot afford to lock in the damage to public services that occurred over the last decade, accepting growing school deficits, and city bankruptcies, reduce public safety, and crumbling roads and bridges as the “new normal.”

~The Path To Prosperity, Nov. 2013


Michigan Dream At Risk: The Human Toll

Colleges & Universities

Michigan citizens take tremendous pride in our institutions of higher learning. They are, in fact, a point of identification for many of us, and a pathway to a better job and better life for generations of Michiganders. The schools have always symbolized a state where hard work was then rewarded with opportunity, and a gateway to a better life.

The Facts: 

  • The Center for Michigan reported that state support for higher education went down 29 percent between 2004 and 2014.
  • The MLPP reported that state support for Community College has been flat since 2001, while enrollments went up 50 percent.
  • And tuition at Michigan public universities has doubled over the past decade.
  • Average debt per 2012 Michigan college graduate is $28,840, which is among the 10 worst in the country, according to a Detroit Free Pres report from Dec. 2013.

Cities & Communities

Through a 1,000-person survey and series of diverse focus groups, Michigan Dream Restored found that Michigan citizens want cities and towns they can be proud of. They want great localities to raise families, where kids would want to stay and make homes for themselves. But Michigan communities that were once a source of personal and familial pride are falling apart. They are often unable to provide even the basic vital services, much less offer access to arts, safe parks, and viable transportation options.

The Facts:

  • According to the Michigan Municipal League, there are 4,000 fewer police and firefighters protecting Michigan communities than in 2001.
  • And there are now seven communities under Emergency Financial Management in Michigan.
  • A 2013 study by Robert Klein at Great Lakes Economic Consulting showed that local government employment fell 9.4 percent from 2000 to 2011, more than any other state.
  • The Center for Michigan reported that state revenue sharing was cut 31 percent in real terms from 2004 to 2014.
  • The Michigan Dream Restored survey showed that than 51 percent of Michigan residents believe services such as road and street repair, police and fire protection, schools and parks are worse, or much worse, now than they were 10 to15 years ago.

 Road & Infrastructure

A good infrastructure is necessary for the economic health of any vital community. And a big part of the Michigan Dream is the open road, traveling it, heading in any direction to fish, hike, ski, retreat, or haul a boat or snowmobile.

The annual “Woodward Dream Cruise” symbolizes the pride we feel in our cars, and our communities, and the roads and highways that uphold them. The event sees more than 30,000 custom and collector vehicles cruise Woodward Avenue in suburban Detroit. It’s a tradition born of the value that we put into the things we created in Michigan.

The Michigan Dream Restored survey found that the main reason Michigan residents want their roads repaired and maintained is to rekindle pride in their communities, to make them attractive and fulfilling places to live or operate a business.

The Facts: 

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of all 50 states, Michigan ranks the lowest in per capita spending on infrastructure.
  • A Trip research report showed that in 2013, Michigan ranked 30th of 50 states in highway system performance (pavement conditions, bridge conditions, expenditures to maintain and other measures). Bridge Magazine reported that more than 57 percent of roads Detroit, 40 percent in Grand Rapids, and 49 percent in Lansing region are in poor or mediocre condition.
  • Bridge Magazine also reported that the number of Michigan roads needing structural repair has doubled from 2004 to 2011.
  • And Michigan’s deteriorated and congested roads cost individual motorists more than $1,000 a year (over $1,600 in Detroit!) in operating costs, lost time, wasted fuel, congestion, and crashes.
  • The Trip research showed that rough roads cost Michigan drivers more than $500 annually in Detroit for repairs, and $300 a year in Grand Rapids and Lansing.
  • And Michigan’s roads rated second worst in the nation by truck users.

You don’t have to travel far to see the difference between the Michigan roads we can’t afford to maintain, and states whose roads reflect a strong community.

Brookings Institution research showed in 2011 that Michigan has poor public transportation options, particularly in Detroit. Only 22 percent of available jobs are within 90 minutes reach, and low-service frequency in low-income neighborhoods isolate families.

 Arts & Culture

Creative businesses are one of the growing business segments and job providers in Michigan. Young creative professionals are part of the positive redevelopment of midtown Detroit and other urban core communities. Arts and cultural institutions bring in a sizable portion (16 percent) of Michigan tourism.

But state support for the arts has diminished significantly, and education cuts have meant the elimination of arts and arts education in our schools.

The Facts: 

  • ArtServe Michigan reported in 2013 that state support for arts and culture, while seeing slight increase the past two years, is down from $25 million to $8 million, or 66 percent over the last decade.
  • A 2012 survey conducted for the Michigan Dept. of Education and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs showed that 108,000 Michigan students, or 12 percent of all K-12 students, have no arts education (even though it is a state requirement) as schools cut arts teachers and programs under budget pressures.
  • And MLive reported in 2012 that Michigan spends $1.67 per pupil at elementary school level, and $4.39 per student at high school level for arts education programs. This compares to $4 and $8 per at elementary level in Minnesota and New Jersey, and $9 and $15 per at high school level in Ohio and Minnesota.

 Clean Water, Parks and Conservation

No one can deny that Michigan is a family state. One of our favorite things to do is escape with our families to some favorite spot within the state. Many of these places – such as our state and local parks, beautiful woods, lakes and streams – were set aside years ago for public use, and are cleaned and maintained with our tax dollars.

Michigan citizens are protective of their home state and are troubled to see it degraded. Once a leader in conservation support, Michigan now ranks near the bottom of states.

The Facts: 

  • The Natural Resources Defense Council reported that beach closures and advisories in Michigan have increased 22 percent over the past 5 years.
  • According to Bridge Magazine, Michigan rivers impaired by potentially harmful pathogens doubled from 3,359 to 7,232 miles between 2008 and 2012.
  • And 95 percent of rivers and 84 percent of inland lakes and reservoirs failed to meet water quality standards for PCBs or mercury in fish.
  • Bridge Magazine also reported that Michigan’s state parks have a backlog of maintenance projects that total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Center for Michigan research showed that state Funding for natural resources and the environment has fallen 6 percent from 2004 to 2014, and the general fund support for the Department of Environmental Quality fell 72 percent, while staffing was down 18 percent in the same ten-year span.


The Collective Impact – The Michigan Dream Diminished

Michigan citizens feel the difference. Michigan citizens see a significant gap between the “ideal” Michigan and the current reality. While the national rebound of the auto industry has pushed Michigan’s economy forward and helped drive state revenues upward in 2013, this “bump” is tapering off. Good jobs and good times in Michigan are still scarce, and, for many, Michigan’s current reality is characterized by uncertainty and struggle.

Folks in Michigan also see a lot of what they value about their state being unavailable or degraded: The link between hard work, opportunity and jobs just doesn’t seem real. Family members are forced to leave. Public safety and vital services, such as roads and infrastructure, are in terrible condition (making neighborhoods and communities unattractive). Education and higher education is not what it should be, or is out of reach for too many. The outdoors and recreational opportunities Michiganders appreciate and love so much are at risk.

According to the Michigan Dream Restored focus groups, more than half of those residents surveyed said that they believe services (road and street repair, police and fire protection, K-12 schools and higher education, state parks) are in worse, or much worse, shape than ever.


The Facts

As reported by Kurt Metzger of Data Detroit, and the Kaufman Foundation, the economic data confirms that the long-term disinvestment in our people, state and communities carries a very steep price. Michigan continues to fall further behind other states in key indicators that define economic opportunity and future success.

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Personal Income

Over the past dozen years, Michigan has fallen from 19th to 37th in the nation in personal income, which is well below the national average.

Buying Power

Michigan household’s income and family buying power has dropped more than any other state.

Student Performance

Michigan Students Stalling in Reading, Math Compared to Other States: Michigan was one of only 11 states where the percentage of students in both fourth and eighth grades who scored at or above proficient in math was below the national average.

Higher Education

Michigan ranks 33rd in higher education attainment of our citizens. 31 states are outpacing Michigan in growth in higher education among their citizens.


Michigan lags behind the national average in entrepreneurial activity.


Michigan Unemployment rate is 7.4 percent vs. 6.3 percent national average. The figure is well above growing sister states such as Minnesota (at 4.7 percent).


A Better Path

There is a better path, and Michigan citizens know what it is, and it has everything to do with Michigan becoming that land of opportunity again, that place where hard work is rewarded by good jobs.

When asked to name state priorities – those that are the most urgent and must be dealt with right now if we are to see a thriving economy – Michiganders placed these at at the top of their list: quality education, public safety and fighting crime, and protecting the Great Lakes and other natural resources.

Michigan folks also make a clear connection between doing better by these important assets, and creating the conditions that lead to job creation.

When asked the simple question: “Which of the following two statements comes closer to your view?”

Michigan citizens overwhelmingly (64 percent to 29 percent) say support for the things they value about Michigan is the key to economic growth.

If this is the case, then why can’t we do better?

In recent years we’ve managed to put an additional $65 million into preschool education (at the expense of K-12 funding however), find a bit more for K-12 increases (almost all going  to pay pension costs, however,  not into the classroom). The state budget just completed for next year makes some beginning steps on higher education, but totally punts on desperately needed road funding!

We still have miles to go to rebuild Michigan after years of neglect.

A combination of continued tax cuts, revenue losses from a weak economy, and an inability or unwillingness to raise much in the way of new revenues, continue to combine to curb investment in the pillars that support Michigan’s economy. A big reason for this is the continued belief among many decision makers that, despite the clear sentiments of Michigan’s citizens to the contrary, low taxes trump public investments as a winning economic strategy.

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Cutting Public Investments is No Way to Win

A Nov. 2013 piece in Bloomberg’s Business Week  (“Innovative States Aren’t Low Tax States”) noted that the top “tax-climate friendly states” such as Wyoming, South Dakota and Florida don’t perform as well on measures of innovation, science, technology and human capital as some of the “worst” tax climate states, like Massachusetts, Washington, New Jersey, and Connecticut, those investing in public good such as education, higher education, and infrastructure.

“It’s striking how low-tax states such as South Dakota and Wyoming hold a place of pride in fiscal rankings, while such states as California and Minnesota dominate innovation lists. … In general low tax states have historically been dependent on natural resources or on mass production industries, relying on low-costs rather than innovative capacities to gain a competitive advantage. … But innovative capacity (derived through universities, R&D investments, scientists and engineers and entrepreneurial drive) is increasingly what drives competitive success.”

In a close-to-home example, Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, Inc., a respected non-profit research center, reported that our sister Great Lakes state Minnesota, which ranks 44th in the Tax Foundation’s Business Tax Climate Index, just raised taxes on the wealthy by $2 billion to protect needed public investments in education and cities. Minnesota has a low unemployment rate too (4.7 percent vs. Michigan’s 7.4 percent), one that has been falling faster than Michigan’s over the past years.

Michigan and our citizens deserve better. Let’s rebuild the “pillars” of our economy, those that make us strong and give us confidence.

Let’s enjoy a state that’s filled with great schools and universities and safe and vital communities. Let’s enjoy a state that offers good, dependable transportation and beautiful parks, with rich arts and culture, and clean and gorgeous outdoors and waters.

Go to to join others in working to restore the Michigan Dream.


I want to help rebuild the Michigan dream.


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