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Correction 10/11: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the host of the event. It has been corrected to represent the Poverty Solutions initiative as the host.

The University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative hosted University of Iowa professor Louise Seamster Friday to discuss the relationship between municipal debt and racial disparities. The event kicked off the Real World Perspectives on Poverty Solutions speaker series, which hosts key experts on the causes and consequences of poverty. Students, faculty and community members gathered in the School of Social Work while enjoying cookies and coffee, to talk about the intersection between race, poverty and debt.

The event marks the first time the recurring speaker series has been able to host an in-person event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Real World Perspectives series consists of weekly hour-long talks and constitutes a one-credit course — listed as SWK 503: Foundation Topics in Social Work — centered on exploring interdisciplinary, real-world poverty solutions.

Engineering senior Catherine Ferrey is currently enrolled in the course and said these speaker series are a great way to learn about real-world issues. Ferrey told The Michigan Daily in an interview Sunday she was glad to have an outside perspective on the issue.

“Often we can get sheltered in our little Ann Arbor bubble, and I think it’s important to get other perspectives on important things happening near us, like the Flint water crisis and the Detroit water shutoffs, and learn about them and become more aware of them and how the policies affect them,” Ferrey said.

Seamster, who teaches sociology and criminology, presented “In Deep Water: The Role of Municipal Debt in Environmental Crises and Racial Disparities,” a talk focused on her research on the water systems in Michigan cities, including Detroit and Flint. Seamster also discussed the financial implications these systems have on municipal residents, including a widening gap between “the gap between what people are able to pay and rising water rates.” 

“Originally I thought that water systems were all public and funded by taxpayers,” Ferrey said. “I didn’t realize they were funded by investors buying municipal bonds, and because they are so reliant on those bonds, they can (be governed) by debt.”

Seamster’s research uncovers some of the issues associated with these water systems, such as the emergency financial managers placed in charge of “improving” cities like Detroit and Flint. Seamster called these systems “destructive of democracy,” saying government officials often exploit residents in an effort to bring in additional revenue. From the water shutoffs in Detroit to the Flint water crisis, issues of water governance contribute to a cycle of eviction, foreclosure, illness, displacement and disability. Terri Friedline, associate professor of social work, said Seamster’s work allows the community to see what’s really going on with their city’s water systems.

“I think it’s really important research to be able to see behind the scenes,” Friedline said. “Some of her work is looking behind the scenes of what has happened around decision-making in Flint, and that’s not always a viewpoint that we get to see as the public and hopefully will support some kind of justice for the residents of Flint.”

Seamster also studies racial inequality in debt and debt markets. She analyzes predatory inclusion, in which people are offered loans on exploitative terms, student debt and how marginalized communities are more commonly targeted with these predatory loans. Seamster drew parallels between cities’ treatment of water and educational affordability, saying her work is motivated by a desire to undermine what she sees as the unfair terms on which financial systems are built.

Friedline also conducts research on how financial and economic systems perpetuate and exacerbate inequalities on the basis of race, gender and class. Her research correlates with Seamster’s expertise on banking and debt, and Seamster’s work has even made its way into Friedline’s course curriculum.

“I teach a course on engaging diversity, social justice and oppression in social work,” Friedline said. “Much of the class, the way that I teach it focuses on banking and finance, including reading work of Dr. Seamster’s around predatory inclusion and municipal debt and looking at water crises and thinking about how these institutions can create crises in communities that they then struggle to resolve.”

Davon Norris, LSA Collegiate Fellow, said he also encountered Seamster’s research while studying how racial inequalities manifest through financial circumstances.

“(Seamster) and her colleagues and co-authors are doing really impressive work that’s really trying to unravel the different entanglements that debt in general can create,” Norris said.

Norris said Seamster’s research clarified the scope of the problem using accessible language. During the talk, Seamster emphasized that debt is often mistakenly understood as a result of personal responsibility, and those with the most power and education often do not grasp the impact structural inequality has on the distribution of debt.

“Something (Seamster) talked about is that debt is easily understood as this individualized thing — that this person borrowed this money, this person failed to repay this debt, or in (Seamster’s) case, the city took out this debt and is failing to repay that,” Norris said. “I think her analysis really shows that’s an interpretation, but that interpretation kind of misses a lot of system-level dynamics that informed the conditions under which the city had to borrow.”

Norris said the event has been helpful to bring a broad understanding of these inequities to the Ann Arbor community.

“The University of Michigan was founded in Detroit and has since moved to Ann Arbor,” Norris said.   “There are elements of her talk … which I think that the University community here needs to engage with, … as we understand our position at the University of Michigan as being connected to the lives and the striving of folks of Detroit and of Flint.”

Daily News Contributor Alexandra Vena can be reached at alexvena@umich.edu.