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DAVIDSON: Getting to understand 'West Michigan Nice'

• Jan 5, 2018 at 1:00 PM

A dear friend and music junkie recently introduced me to a song that has found its way into my head, and I cannot shake it. Some of you may be familiar with “Nothing More” by The Alternate Routes. For me, the tune and its poignant message are a battle cry for what I believe to be true of West Michigan and this country in general.

The chorus goes like this: “We are love, we are one, we are how we treat each other when the day is done. We are peace, we are war, we are how we treat each other and nothing more.”

How simple. How complex.

When I moved to West Michigan in 2001 from the east side of the state, I was told about something called "West Michigan nice." Through the years, I have come to understand this on a few levels.

On a surface level, I think the term refers to the idea that most people in West Michigan are friendly and greet strangers on the street with a smile and a nod. Having lived in different parts of the state and the country, I will say that there is something uniquely “nice” about West Michigan. Beyond the surface, there is a sense of community that is subtle but striking.

When one of our own — either an individual, a family or a group within our wider community — is in need, the people of the West Michigan that I know come through. Time and again, we see food pantries being filled at schools, neighbors shoveling out neighbors and public school supporters donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to fill gaps in the state-funded education of our children. I see this in the medical arena with faith- and community-based initiatives to support patients with their non-medical needs in times of a health care crisis.

I am sure that this sense of “West Michigan nice” is not unique to our region, but it is also not ubiquitous to all areas of this country.

There are many communities so entrenched in generational poverty that no amount of nice from within the community can rescue some of its residents from the corrosive effects of that poverty.

When the minimum wage in Michigan is $9.25 per hour, and federally is $7.25 per hour and hasn’t increased since 2009, even the most benevolent community cannot make rent payments, pay for groceries or pay for gas when the hourly wage is one-third of that required to “just get by” as a typical family. When 30 million people still do not have health insurance, and another 120 million with insurance cannot afford health care despite that insurance, there is a level of “nice” that is required of our national community through the actions of our federal government.

That is why the residents of West Michigan, like the vast majority of Americans, are baffled by the reckless actions of our Congress and president with the recent tax scheme signed into law as an early Christmas gift to large corporations and the super-rich. When policy is enacted where 60 percent of its immediate benefits and 83 percent of its long-term benefits go to the top 1 percent, the residents of West Michigan should question those who supported, touted and voted for that policy.

A 2017 United Way study of low-income families in Michigan showed that between 36 percent and 61 percent of families and individuals in West Michigan do not make enough to pay for the basics of housing, child care, food, transportation and health care (www.unitedwayalice.org/michigan). The average hourly wage needed by an individual working 40 hours a week to support a family of four meet those basic needs in Michigan is $28. Even if both parents worked full time at the current state minimum wage, that combined $18.50 per hour falls far short of what families need to survive.

A government that regarded living a life of dignity with an ounce of respect would work tirelessly to ensure that its residents had the means to live their lives and raise their families. That same government would ensure that affordable health care was a reality for all 325 million Americans. That government would not rest until it had exhausted all means to lift the 41 million residents — including 12 million children — who lived in poverty out of that tragic state.

If we are indeed how we treat each other and nothing more, the people of West Michigan should serve as an example to our government. We give of our time, talents and treasure to lift up our neighbors. Isn’t it time that we demand the same level of “nice" from our elected officials?

Those in need of health care and better wages aren’t looking for a handout. They are simply looking for fairness, and from time to time, a helping hand when life throws them a curveball. Instead of a tax giveaway to the richest among us, our government should be providing support to working families struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

When the day is done, we cannot be judged by our words. We must be judged by how we treat each other.

— By Dr. Rob Davidson, Tribune community columnist

Editor’s note: Dr. Davidson will be taking a hiatus from writing columns for the Tribune, as he is a candidate for Michigan’s 2nd Congressional District, and, as of next month, the primary election for that race will be just six months away.

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