Panelists at the University of Michigan met Tuesday afternoon to discuss Poverty Solutions — an initiative introduced by University President Mark Schlissel in October 2016 — and review nine research projects funded through a new grant program operated by the initiative. The projects, totaling $200,000, represent the initiative’s first investments in research and model testing aiming to use research about poverty to better suit different communities.

Poverty Solutions Director Luke Shaefer, an associate professor of social work and public policy, opened the discussion — held over Facebook Live — by introducing the interdisciplinary initiative, which, according to its mission statement, is designed “to become a leader in informing, identifying and testing new strategies for the prevention and alleviation of poverty in Michigan, the nation and the world.”

Poverty Solutions researches and works with policymakers and community organizations to better understand the causes and results of poverty, ultimately working toward preventing it. Shaefer explained that a goal of the program is to enact policy that opens economic opportunities, reduces educational disparities and improves health in order to lift families out of low socioeconomic status.

“Poverty Solutions was launched this past October with a bold mission: To cultivate action-based research and teaching partnerships with community stakeholders and policymakers to build knowledge about what works in confronting poverty,” he said.

The collaborative program is co-sponsored by the University-sponsored Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center, the Detroit Health Department, Henry Ford Health System and nine community-based organizations. The nine new projects, according to the initiative’s website, center around three main areas: “(e)xpanding economic opportunity to reduce poverty,” “(r)educing educational disparities to promote social mobility” and “(a)ddressing the health consequences of poverty.”

Schlissel lauded the efforts and urged all colleges and schools to consider programs working toward solutions to poverty not only in Michigan, but the rest of the world.

“I think, as a public university, our research should be focused on the challenges and opportunities that benefit the public that we serve,” Schlissel said. “My challenge as a university leader is to identify a match between what we’re good at, what we can bring to the table and what society needs.”

Schlissel said the initiative owed it to the state to aid impoverished areas, especially as Michigan residents invest so many resources into the University.

“The beauty of Michigan is we have representation in so many different academic areas,” Schlissel said. “My job is to be your biggest booster and provide some money.”

At a lecture in October 2016, Carol O’Cleireacain, the Detroit’s deputy mayor for economic policy, planning and strategy, referred to Detroit as a “rich public policy laboratory.” Public Policy junior Stephen Wallace, backed by many audience members, publicly criticized O’Cleireacain, highlighting what he perceived as an image of Detroit’s lower-income citizens as projects for research — something he found particularly demoralizing as a resident.

Shaefer, however, said Poverty Solutions studies are about more than just conducting an experiment, citing the expansion of community health workers in the Cody Rouge neighborhood of Detroit through the efforts of Michele Heisler, professor of internal medicine, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, medical director at the Detroit Health Department and Dave Law, executive director of the Joy-Southfield Community Development Corporation, who all sat on the live-streamed panel.

Heisler said even with insurance, many Medicaid subscribers in Detroit still face difficulty in accessing health care. Because of this, community health workers who live in the same community are receiving training to reach out to families and work with them to meet their medical needs. Despite the success of these workers, however, they lack the necessary job-funding, prompting their collaboration with Medicaid companies to now try to create a financially sustainable model.

“There’s a lot of evidence about how effective community health workers can be,” Heisler said. “The problem is that, to date, they’ve often just been supported by short-term grants. The idea is that you would have the health plans contributing to the salaries to support community health workers.”

Law said, in addition to health, his team can now target all determinants of health such as food access, community safety, housing and youth mentoring.

“We’ve been trying to get a community health program going for years,” Law said. “This will finally provide the cement that will allows the residents and the stakeholders and the agencies that are helping to promote health, come together and make sure people know what’s available.”

Khaldun added people are one of the most important resources in the city, saying many citizens are unable to get to their appointments, creating a need in the city for training for community health workers to help citizens to connect them with their resources.

“The health department is thought of as a brick and mortar in Detroit,” Khaldun said. “But we are bringing our services to the city, to the people in the neighborhoods. We’re empowering the people.”

Trina Shanks, an associate professor of social work who works on a summer jobs program in Detroit hiring thousands of youth for six weeks, said there must be jobs available for young people in low-income neighborhoods who are not in school or not working. By empowering young people early with jobs, Shanks said, such programs can put children on a path toward a successful career later in life.

“The young people felt they were contributing to their families,” Shanks said. “We went from having a couple of thousand jobs in Detroit to 7,000, and we grew. Now that we’ve grown the numbers, we’re also building the infrastructure.”

Schlissel said all these ideas are well-intentioned, but must be extensively studied to figure out what the best approaches are to help as many people as possible out of poverty.

“The sweet thing to me about this is the University isn’t stepping in and behaving like a social services entity,” Schlissel said. “We’re behaving like researchers and teachers providing some organization but also studying how this gets implemented.”

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