Faculty Research Projects

Targeting Poverty in the Courts: Improving the Measurement of Ability to Pay

Gavel on top of hundred-dollar bills

The U-M Online Court Project is developing and testing a robust, objective digital method of evaluating litigants’ ability to pay legal fines to enable courts to make more accurate determinations on ability to pay issues, reduce the number of individuals subjected to insurmountable escalating penalties, and help courts assess when financial sanctions are truly appropriate.

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In March 2015, the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report that outlined the systematic criminalization of offenses like parking and minor traffic tickets, and even unmowed lawns. Fines and failure to pay resulted in cascading consequences that illustrate the legal cost of being poor: mounting fines and late fees, license suspensions, and jail. Those affected were disproportionately impoverished and black. As a result, courts across the nation looked at how they handle ability to pay issues and the Michigan Supreme Court handed down new rules that take into consideration material hardship and the defendant’s ability to comply.

The U-M Online Court Project (OCP) will develop and test a robust, objective digital method of evaluating litigants’ ability to pay that will be implemented in partnership with the Michigan 31st District Court of Hamtramck (which has a poverty rate of 48.5%). The method will help defendants provide courts with a complete picture of their financial stability in a fair manner and will assist courts in exploring alternative sanctions for those who cannot pay. The tool will enable courts to make more accurate determinations on ability to pay issues, reduce the number of individuals subjected to insurmountable escalating penalties, and help courts assess when financial sanctions are truly appropriate. It will also further the conversation on the criminalization of poverty and the treatment of poverty in American courts.

JJ Prescott, U-M Law School


Poor, Invisible, and Left Behind: Understanding Financial Instability, Material Hardship, and the Availability and Use of Community Resources among Low-Income Rural Households

This project aims to better understand the financial lives of low-income rural households by examining key determinants of financial instability and material hardship as well as variations in and contextual determinants of nonprofit resources available to rural counties.

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Rural poverty is a prevalent and persistent social problem in the United States, however despite that rural counties comprise over 85% of the poorest counties in the US, factors impacting financial well-being for low-income families living in rural America have been understudied and largely ignored. This project aims to better understand the financial lives of low-income rural households. It will examine key determinants of financial instability and material hardship as well as variations in and contextual determinants of nonprofit resources available to rural counties. Findings from this project will help inform community-level intervention strategies aimed at alleviating material hardship and promoting economic mobility, as well as public and private funding policies aimed at low-income households in rural America.

Mathieu Despard, U-M School of Social Work
Addie Weaver, U-M School of Social Work


Improving Employability via Physical Crowdsourced Tasks

Carpenter with apprentice in woodshop

Through collaboration with local Southeast Michigan organizations that specialize in job training, investigators plan to identify real-world tasks and skills that job-seekers need for long-term employment.

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According to the Center for American Progress, one of the top ten solutions to cut poverty and grow the middle class is job creation. This project aims to create a computer-based tool that would match underserved job seekers– such as those who may live in low-socioeconomic regions, have low income, or have limited education– to tasks that could increase their employability. Through collaboration with local Southeast Michigan organizations that specialize in job training, investigators will identify real-world tasks and skills that job-seekers need for long-term employment. Underserved job-seekers will then be recruited to test out a computational tool that links them to opportunities for building such skills. Results from this project will inform efforts to use existing crowdsourcing platforms to build underserved job-seeker skill sets that are likely to lead to long-term employment and ultimately job creation.

Tawanna Dillahunt, U-M School of Information
Walter S. Lasecki, Michigan Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science


The systemic effects of SNAP benefit cuts on Washtenaw County poverty alleviation institutions

Children in produce section of supermarket

This project will measure the burden of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts on poverty alleviation institutions in Washtenaw county, such as community groups that provide food and housing assistance, government offices tasked with implementing the policy change, and private-public partnerships with farmer’s markets that leverage SNAP dollars.

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In the last three years, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) benefits have been cut three times, the most recent reduction is expected to impact between 500,000 and 1 million people in 22 states. In Washtenaw County alone, up to 5,000 people may be affected. This project aims to measure the burden of these cuts on poverty alleviation institutions in Washtenaw county, such as community groups that provide food and housing assistance, government offices tasked with implementing the policy change, and private-public partnerships with farmer’s markets that leverage SNAP dollars. Investigators will analyze existing data and conduct interviews with staff from the Washtenaw County branch of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, directors of housing assistance programs and food assistance institutions, and former SNAP recipients. Findings will be used to support decision making among poverty alleviation institutions and policy advocacy groups, housing assistance organizations, health clinics and the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council. Additionally, the research design may be used to track the effects of SNAP cuts soon to take effect in other Michigan counties.

Lesli Hoey, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Sue Ann Savas, U-M School of Social Work
Andrew Jones, U-M School of Public Health
Sandra K. Danziger, U-M Ford School of Public Policy
Mary Jo Callan, Director, U-M Edward Ginsberg Center
Markell Miller, Food Gatherers
Kate Kraus, Fair Food Network


Does the Earned Income Tax Credit Reduce Housing Instability?

This research examines whether the Earned Income Tax Credit. a key U.S. social welfare policy and one of the largest cash transfer programs in the U.S., reduces housing instability.

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Housing instability (inability to pay rent, frequent moves, moving in with others/doubling up, eviction, or homelessness) is common among low-income households and is linked with a host of negative outcomes for families and children. As rents have risen and wages have not kept pace, housing affordability has declined over the last 15 years increasing rates of housing instability. This project aims to examine whether the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a key US social welfare policy and one of the largest cash transfer programs in the US, reduces housing instability. To date, no quantitative research has examined this link. Investigators will examine whether policy-induced expansions in the EITC (exploiting federal and state policy variation over time by family size) reduces housing instability. Findings may be used to consider how expansions to the EITC might be used to reduce housing instability and improve the lives of low-income families.

Natasha Pilkauskas, U-M Ford School of Public Policy
Katherine Michelmore, Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs


Transportation Insecurity: Developing a Measure to Capture an Understudied Dimension of Poverty

Crowd at train stop

This project aims to develop the Transportation Security Index, a tool that operationalizes transportation insecurity by measuring an individual’s ability to get to the places he/she needs to go regardless of transportation used or area of residence.

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Transportation is an often-overlooked dimension of poverty. For example, problems with transportation have been shown to exacerbate multiple symptoms of poverty (e.g. poor mental health outcomes, low levels of access to services, difficulty securing employment). However, no existing measurements in the federal suite of material hardship measures accounts for problems with transportation. This project aims to develop the Transportation Security Index, a tool that operationalizes transportation insecurity by measuring an individual’s ability to get to the places she needs to go regardless of transportation used or area of residence. It will be made available for use by researchers, policy makers, and community groups interested in examining the causes and consequences of transportation insecurity and its relationship to poverty and may also be used to evaluate how transportation-related policies and programs affect socio-economic mobility.

Alexandra K. Murphy, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology & Faculty Associate, Population Studies Center, University of Michigan
Jamie Griffin, PhD, Assistant Research Scientist, Survey Research Center, University of Michigan
Alix Gould-Werth, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Research Scientist, Population Studies Center, University of Michigan & Researcher, Mathematica Policy Research