The Optimist in Human Services

The Optimist in Human Services

Not a day goes by that Marianne Udow doesn’t hear about some calamity that’s befallen a child in Michigan. It’s part of her job as director of the state’s Department of Human Services, a post she’s held since 2004. “I get to see the most tragic situations, and I read about every child’s death,” she says.

But Udow, M.H.S.A ’78, takes heart from the many people in Michigan who are trying to make things better, even in the most devastated communities. And she believes in primary prevention. “I never feel defeated. I think this comes from my public health background, which commits me every day to primary prevention. We know so much about what works and what makes a difference in children’s lives.”

Her essential optimism has fueled Udow’s career, both in the public sector and the private (she’s a former senior vice president of health care products and provider services for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan). And it’s why she was an apt choice to be this year’s School of Public Health commencement speaker. “I want students to keep their optimism and to understand what’s most important in the world,” Udow says. “If you’re going into public health because you want to help people, then you want gratification in ways that are different than financial gratification.”

The Department of Human Services is a case in point. With the state’s economy in flux and funding tight, Udow says members of her staff “feel enormously demoralized, because case loads are so high and they don’t feel valued.” And yet, like countless public-sector employees across America, they work “incredibly hard, for much less money and in much more critical situations.”

Their work can often mean the difference between sickness and health, life and death, for Michigan’s youngest citizens. Udow says that’s one reason she’s committed to helping people understand why they pay taxes. “If we’re not investing in our children, the state’s not going to turn around,” she insists. “If all we think about is the crisis of the moment, we’ll never get out of this crisis.”

Toward that end, Udow and Governor Jennifer Granholm have launched the Early Childhood Investment Corporation aimed at helping children from infancy to age three—by which time, Udow points out, 85 percent of an individual’s brain has developed. The nonprofit public corporation coordinates state and local efforts to promote early childhood development activities throughout Michigan.

Udow and Granholm are also working to expand preschool programs and to reassess underutilized existing programs. “There’s no question in my mind,” Udow says, “that investing in early childhood is fundamental to our success in the future.”

Photo by Peter Smith.

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“If we’re not investing in our children, the state’s not going to turn around,” says Marianne Udow, director of the Michigan Department of Human Services.