This article series is sponsored by Consumers Energy and went through our normal editorial review process.
As within much of the U.S., economic prospects have improved across Michigan. But a recent report concluded that the poverty rate actually increased in about half of the state’s communities over the past decade. And with winter now blanketing Michigan, where daily low temperatures often fall under 20°F, this time is a reminder of how some of the state’s residents struggle paying off those expensive winter heating bills.
To learn how both companies and individuals have banded together to help vulnerable residents during the difficult winter months – while inspiring these same people to take action and pay it forward – TriplePundit (3P) recently interviewed Kate White, Executive Director of Michigan Community Action, a coalition of nonprofits committed to fighting poverty across the Wolverine State. Prior to joining the organization, White had a long career working within legal aid programs, other nonprofits and government agencies. “I made the switch to Michigan Community Action because of the values we share in fighting poverty, as we work with those who need a hand up, not a handout,” said White.
One of the many initiatives on which Michigan Community Action works is Walk for Warmth, which operates exactly how it sounds: community walks, organized at both indoor and outdoor venues, raise awareness, and funds, to help out citizens who face difficulty in paying their home heating costs. Walk for Warmth is a decentralized program, reflecting Michigan Community Action itself, which is a network with 29 chapters throughout Michigan. Across various cities and counties, local groups schedule and launch walks. All Walk for Warmth events keep 100 percent of the funds locally in the county in which they are raised.
Furthermore, each Walk for Warmth operates slightly differently. As White explained, some participants pledge to raise funds; others may just show up and drop off a check on the day they join the event. “It is both the mission of our organization, as well as the people participating, to remind people that it’s cold out there, and we need to show the community that we care for you,” said White.
The vast majority of funds are raised by local community groups and individuals. Walks in adjacent Livingston and Oakland Counties in the greater Detroit area, for example, raised over $172,000 last year.
Contributions also come from companies, including Consumers Energy, a Michigan public utility that provides power to about two-thirds of Michigan’s residents. According to White, Consumers Energy offers two strengths to Walk for Warmth. First, the utility matches donations by its employees and any participating family and friends. Next are the optics: Consumers Energy’s employees and retirees often attend the walks, helping to generate buzz and make these events a success from county to county. “They’re a wonderful corporate citizen,” said White as she summed up the utility’s support.
During an average year, Michigan Community Action estimates that funds raised by Walk for Warmth help approximately 10,000 families. But this year, the coalition is on pace to assist as many as 11,000 to 12,000 families. That spike in number is partly because of the potential effects the ongoing cold snap across the eastern U.S. could have on propane, the fuel often used for heating in rural areas and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where natural gas lines do not exist. Current supplies and prices for propane are for now relatively stable in Michigan compared to elsewhere in the U.S. But as White warned, “We’re watching the situation closely for propane, as there are market forces affecting some families’ access to this fuel.”
In the big picture, Walk for Warmth’s long-term impact soars far beyond helping people out during the brutally cold winter months. The program is a gateway to community involvement, improving quality of life and even lifting families out of poverty. “One thing we find is that once we help a family get through the winter, they are often eager to give back,” White said. “People want a connection to their community, and when they do help out, they are willing to give back when they can. They just don’t want a handout.”
That repayment, explained White, runs the gamut from helping local food banks pack boxes to volunteering in local Head Start programs.
Furthermore, a family seeking help with heating bills may find out they can gain additional benefits to boost their financial security. “One of the things that this program can lead to is that we might be able to help with assistance in other ways, such as screening their homes to see if they qualify for weatherization,” said White. “If they own their home, then can we come in and weatherize it. Or there may be a utility program that can help them pay for a more energy-efficient furnace.”
In other instances, the family may just need some energy education, as in tips reminding them to turn down their water heater’s temperature when it is not needed, or how to manage their home's thermostat better. Or it could just be that a broken window pane needs to be replaced, so the solution could be as simple as finding a local carpenter to fix it.
No matter what the outcome may be, families may see their utility bills reduced, decreasing the need for assistance during future winters.
Meanwhile, families seeking this assistance could also be screened for other services. They may qualify for local commodity food or nutrition programs. Perhaps their kids can be enrolled in Head Start. If a mother is pregnant, she can be referred to local clinics as well as the WIC food and nutrition program. They may even find out they may be eligible for an earned income tax credit.
White rounded out her talk with 3p by reminding us that there is usually no single reason why many families struggle this time of year – and at the same time, that hand up can help them rebound and recover from hard times. “When we work with families, we find it’s not one thing, but a series of bad events,” White said. “Someone lost a job, got sick, or a car broke down . . . it’s not one little thing that pushed them over the edge.”
Hence the $410,000 Michigan Community Action raised last year has gone a long way. And more walks will continue to be scheduled. This has proven to be a stubbornly cold winter, with its harshest impact left on citizens who are most vulnerable.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.