When a public health crisis had embroiled Dana Hornaday’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, she was only in high school and didn’t fully comprehend its cause and full impact.
“I don’t want to say that I didn’t know what exactly was going on, but I didn’t have the language to truly understand what was happening,” she said.
It wasn’t until she was a first-year student at Central Michigan University, while taking courses on environmental racism that she began to understand the tragic impact of the decisions — in search of cheaper water — that led to the lead contamination of the city’s drinking water.
That new understanding of the importance of well-thought-out urban development and policy led her to pursue a Master of Public Policy and Administration at Adler University — and it is shaping the work she’s already doing as part of her independent study.
“When we look at policy, it’s a lot of rules and methods,” said Hornaday, who is in her first year at Adler. “One of the biggest things that brought me to Adler was its focus on social justice. That piece broadens the policy point of view.”
Hornaday is currently working on two projects with the City of Chicago — through her urban and social policy course — that could significantly impact the lives of thousands of low-income families. The first is to find ways to expand awareness and access to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The second, advocate for continuing funding of a program that aids new mothers and improves maternal and infant health outcomes.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” she said. “I look forward to using what learn from the program back to my own city eventually.”
Catching up on bills
For many low-income households, tax season can provide a significant infusion of cash.
One of the ways families can receive this infusion is through the federal and state EITC.
“It can be a time to catch up on past due bills, debts, and household needs,” said Hornaday.
But there’s only one problem: many families don’t take advantage of it, likely due to the lack of resources or basic understanding of the program.
Low-income families — exactly whom the credits can benefit the most — are often not required to file taxes if they make less than $20,000. However, a person must file their taxes to receive the tax credit.
“There’s an obvious disconnect,” Hornaday said. “As a result, thousands of families miss out on this benefit and the opportunity for increased financial security.”
Today, Hornaday is busy collecting data and conducting research to help her develop briefing materials for city stakeholders to improve understanding of the problem, build buy-in to increase investment, and identify potential models to expand awareness and uptake.
The work includes creating documents that provide background on the credits, data on the current use of the program in Chicago, a recap of past efforts and their results, a landscape analysis of services facilitating access and their effectiveness, and finding successful state and municipal models.
Hornaday will present her findings to Nancy Cao, director of social services policy in the Mayor’s Office, this spring.
“This tax credit can be that thing that helps so many families come out of poverty,” Hornaday said. “It’s important to help the city raise awareness to those who need it most.”
For her second project, which Hornaday just began working on, the goal is more straightforward: advocate for the continuation of funding for Family Connects Chicago, a Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) program providing in-home nursing visits for all households with newborns 3-5 weeks post-partum.
Funding for the citywide program — which comes from the American Rescue Plan Act State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds — is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2026.
The program is based on Family Connects International, an evidence-based model that improves maternal and infant health incomes. It was piloted by CDPH in four out of Chicago’s 15 birthing hospitals in 2019 and expanded citywide to provide universal access to households with newborns.
“It helps new mothers get back on their feet,” Hornaday said. “Mothers receive in-home assistance and basic social resources they may need after having a baby.”
Advocating for the program is in the works on a city and federal level. However, CDPH has a small policy team and needs extra support to ensure these efforts are successful. That’s where Hornaday comes in.
“I hope my findings will encourage the city to continue this important program,” said Hornaday, who will develop policy advocacy materials for key stakeholders, including policy briefs and presentations. She’ll present her work to Amy Black, recovery team program manager for the City of Chicago.
‘Just the beginning’
Hornaday first thought of pursuing a degree in social work. But her courses kept expanding her understanding of what happened in her hometown.
“It was a constant topic in my curriculum,” she said. “And that opened my mind on issues from social justice to bad policy decision-making.”
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the water crisis in Flint began in 2014, when the city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move. Inadequate treatment and testing resulted in major water quality and health issues for residents. These issues were chronically ignored and overlooked by government officials. Ultimately, studies would reveal that the water contributed to elevated blood lead levels in the city’s children.
“It’s very empowering to fully understand what was happening in Flint,” Hornaday said. “That’s what influenced my career pursuits in public policy. It’s one thing to want to implement change. It’s another to know how things work. It comes back to policy.”
Today, the independent study in the MPPA program provides Hornaday with flexibility as she balances a full-time job and work on the two projects with the City of Chicago. Every week, she meets with her professor Letitia Zwickert, MPPA core faculty and program director, to discuss the ongoing progress.
“I’ve definitely been able to apply myself more and create a better connection with the program,” she said.
As for what’s in store for the future, Hornaday said she knows she has plenty of time to figure that out.
“I’d like to start my own nonprofit one day,” she said. “For now, I’m excited to see where the MPPA program takes me. I know these two projects with the City of Chicago are just the beginning.”