University of Michigan Teams Up With City of Detroit to Tackle Poverty

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The Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility—an alliance between the City of Detroit and the University of Michigan’s ambitious new initiative, Poverty Solutions—will tackle generational poverty from several angles.

Created in 2017 by U-M President Mark Schlissel, Poverty Solutions will focus the University of Michigan’s considerable resources on the contemporary, local challenge of poverty. Throughout the four-year program, faculty and students from across the academic spectrum will cooperate with local community organizations and policymakers. Their joint goal is to find—and implement—ways to prevent and alleviate poverty.

Intergenerational poverty is a long-standing problem in Detroit. A Brookings Institute study released in 2016 reports that Detroit has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. The study points to increased crime rates, poorer mental and physical health, and increased rates of school dropout as factors that make it harder for individuals to escape the poverty of their geographical location.

U-M has committed up to $500,000 of annual funding to finance a number of projects over the next four years. Of course, they have some ideas of what these projects will tackle. The University’s action-based research will look primarily at three areas:

  • Expanding economic opportunity  
  • Reducing educational disparities  
  • Addressing the health consequences of poverty

A number of joint initiatives are already underway. One example is the recent effort to support residents with the Poverty Tax Exemption process—an initiative that protects residents whose homes are facing foreclosure due to unpaid taxes. Poverty Solutions is also developing an innovative model to conduct surveys in neighborhoods, which will help researchers better understand the community’s real needs. A community health worker program is being piloted in the Cody-Rouge Neighborhood.

The City of Detroit is understandably excited about the prospects of the partnership. “We are beginning to make progress in reducing the rate of poverty in Detroit, but still have a long way to go,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in a press release. “This partnership between the University of Michigan and the city will be a great help in our efforts to provide pathways out of poverty to our residents who are still struggling.”

The work is not being left solely to the experts. Student engagement is a big part of the mission, says Poverty Solutions spokesperson Kristen Kerecman. “We’re on track to increase the number of U-M students introduced to core content on poverty, and have expanded experiential learning opportunities for those who want to deepen their knowledge,” Kerecman said.

This commitment to solving the systemic challenges of poverty is not new to the University of Michigan. According to Kerecman, the University of Michigan already offers over 100 poverty-related courses across its 13 colleges and schools.

Poverty Solutions employs more than 25 students, undergraduate and graduate, as action-based research assistants. These students assist Poverty Solutions staff and faculty with everything from qualitative data collection to the implementation of their summer youth employment program and census data analysis.

This is good news for students who want to acquire practical experiences as they study. The combination of student participation, cross-disciplinary research, and the merging of the work of the university with the realities of its nearby urban context is a real-world education that many universities strive to offer students.

Kerecman has high hopes for the program.“We aim to prepare the next generation of U-M graduates for careers that significantly contribute to poverty prevention and alleviation—from social workers and policymakers, to engineers and entrepreneurs.”

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