Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage
In 2018, Poverty Solutions, in partnership with Princeton University, began a project supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to identify America’s most disadvantaged communities and better understand the mechanisms driving the struggles community members face. Researchers identified these communities by creating an Index of Deep Disadvantage that combines income, health, and economic mobility data. The index revealed that the vast majority of the top 100 most disadvantaged communities are rural areas with histories of racial and ethnic exploitation, many of which are in the South. Academic work on poverty traditionally focuses on cities, and this finding pushed Poverty Solutions to think about the ways the lack of research further disadvantages rural areas and identify strategies that can support low-income rural communities.
To supplement the data with on-the-ground perspectives, graduate student research assistants spent time in Marion County, South Carolina, and Clay County, Kentucky, in 2019 as well as Brooks and Zavala counties, Texas, and Leflore County, Mississippi, in 2021. The graduate students sharpened their research skills and gained insights into the unique challenges and opportunities facing each community.
The project has already resulted in a series of “Stories from the Field” authored by the graduate students, media coverage of the Index of Deep Disadvantage by regional news outlets in the communities highlighted by the research, and a blogpost and op-ed on how the lack of social infrastructure in disadvantaged rural areas contributes to opioid use. Poverty Solutions Director Luke Shaefer and Princeton’s Kathryn Edin and Tim Nelson will elaborate on the findings in a forthcoming book that examines the historical and structural factors driving deep disadvantage in certain regions and the interventions that would help those communities thrive.
This project is vital because each story offers an authentic perspective on how policies directly impact people’s lives. Rural communities have unique barriers that require unique solutions, and I believe the findings will be instrumental for policymakers and advocates advancing change.
—Maricruz Moya, Poverty Solutions Graduate Student Research Assistant
Promoting Access to COVID-19 Stimulus Payments
For most people, the stimulus checks provided by the federal government at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic were deposited directly into the bank account they listed on their most recent tax returns or delivered via the Social Security system. But people who didn’t file taxes, didn’t have a bank account, or didn’t have a stable address where the check could be mailed faced barriers to receiving their stimulus checks.
The 2020 Coronavirus Stimulus Payment website—developed by Poverty Solutions in partnership with Detroit-based nonprofit design firm Civilla—walked people through a step-by-step process to ensure they are providing the IRS with the information necessary to receive their stimulus checks. The website has information on how to open a safe and affordable bank account, how to file a simple tax return for free, and how to provide the IRS with a current address.
The website has garnered more than 658,000 visitors and received mentions in over 70 media outlets around the country.
“While eligibility for these funds was nearly universal, we were concerned about administrative procedures that could end up denying or delaying stimulus checks to the most vulnerable people,” said Poverty Solutions Director Luke Shaefer. “We needed to act to ensure the timely delivery of aid to the people who needed it most.”
From Cradle to Kindergarten: a New Plan to Combat Inequality
As every parent knows, preschool often comes with a steep price tag. In Michigan and most other states, child care is often unaffordable, and studies show that only 26% of Michigan families can afford infant care.
By age 3, the inequality is clear: most rich kids in the U.S. attend preschool, while most poor kids do not, according to Poverty Solutions faculty affiliate and U-M Assistant Professor at the School of Education Christina Weiland and her co-authors in their book, “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality.”
Between 2017 and 2019, the “Cradle to Kindergarten” authors made over 75 presentations to federal, state, and local governments; academic, policy research, and advocacy professionals; philanthropies; and professional conferences. This included events hosted by Poverty Solutions and the School of Education in both Michigan and Washington, D.C., where Weiland and her co-authors presented concrete plans to education organization leaders and policymakers.
However, since their book was first published, the world was confronted with a pandemic that only magnified levels of socioeconomic and ethnoracial inequality. Weiland and her co-authors consequently released a second edition in 2021 in which they included updated proposals to address this new landscape, as well as guidance on how to effectively structure their proposals in a range of political contexts. Their research has played an important role in the early childhood education policies implemented in cities and states across the country as well as in federal legislation currently being considered by the U.S. Senate.
“States are going to need a vision for how to scale up high-quality early learning for all young kids. That’s exactly what our proposal offers,” Weiland said.
To our authors, thank you for bringing Cradle to Kindergarten to us. And for your work outlining the challenges that families face, and the strategies that we can all take to ensure all children have access to quality early childhood education.
—U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (NH)
Over the past five years, Poverty Solutions scholars have been recognized as thought leaders and anti-poverty experts at the federal level.
Strengthening the Social Safety Net
Poverty Solutions Director H. Luke Shaefer was called to Congress multiple times to discuss ways to strengthen the social safety net, especially for families with children. In 2015, he testified at a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing on welfare and poverty in America. At a Congressional briefing on how to promote child health equity through the tax code in July 2020, Shaefer outlined opportunities to enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. In September 2021, Shaefer testified about the impact of pandemic relief programs at a hearing before the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
Luke, your work, including your book ‘$2 a Day,’ has shaped the way policymakers and the public think about poverty and justice in America. I quote you all the time.
—Sherrod Brown, U.S. Senator (OH)
Auto Insurance Costs as an Economic Mobility Issue
Joshua Rivera, formerly a senior data and policy analyst at Poverty Solutions who now is the Economic Stability Administration policy director at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, testified before the U.S. House Financial Services Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee in May 2019.
Rivera commented on how the high cost of auto insurance perpetuates the cycle of poverty and explained how certain auto insurance rate-setting practices have a disproportionate impact on drivers with low incomes and Black people. Rivera was invited to the hearing, titled “Examining Discrimination in the Automobile Loan and Insurance Industries,” based on his analysis of auto insurance costs in Michigan, which helped inform the state’s auto insurance reform passed in 2019.
Bridging the Digital Divide to Provide New Access to Opportunity
Joshua Edmonds, the City of Detroit’s director of digital inclusion and a former Detroit economic mobility fellow supported by Poverty Solutions, spoke at a hearing on “empowering and connecting communities through digital equity and internet adoption” held by the U.S. House Communications and Technology Subcommittee in January 2020.
Edmonds outlined how digital equity and internet access affect access to online banking, health care, job opportunities that require tech skills, participation in Census 2020, and kids’ ability to do their homework. He shared his strategy for developing public-private partnerships in Detroit to promote digital inclusion and the need for more federal support to bring those efforts to scale.
Using Data to Improve Services for Homeless Youth
Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions who specializes in family homelessness, testified at a virtual hearing held by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education in May 2021.
The hearing was titled “Picking up the Pieces: Strengthening Connections with Students Experiencing Homelessness and Children in Foster Care,” and Erb-Downward discussed her research on the educational challenges faced by students who do not have a stable place to live. She also highlighted the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for schools to identify and support students experiencing homelessness.