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2019 Community-Academic Grant Awards

These projects are co-sponsored by the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center, and researchers and community representatives work as equal partners to pursue action-oriented research questions and intervention strategies that will benefit the communities involved.

There are a variety of competing health needs in communities, particularly in minority and low-income communities, which often have worse health outcomes than other communities. This project, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Friends of Parkside, a non-profit on Detroit’s eastside, proposes a new approach to address health disparities by meaningfully engaging communities in decision-making to prioritize community health needs.
The literature shows that community engagement, improved health, and poverty reduction are all interconnected. This project will evaluate the use of a simulation exercise, CHAT (CHoosing All Together), to engage underserved, minority community members in setting priorities for community health benefit (CHB). Using CHAT, participants prioritize competing needs for limited resources. Specifically, this project will:

  • Build on and strengthen existing academic-community partnerships with non-profit healthcare organizations (HCO) and community leaders in three geographic areas in Michigan.
  • With partners, engage community members in determining CHB priorities.
  • Assess the impact of community engagement on participants, on HCO decision-making, and on motivating community entities to improve community health.

CHAT has been used in multiple other research projects, including the largest one in scope called Deliberative Engagement of Communities in Decisions about Resources (DECIDERS). Through this project, a longstanding Steering Committee was established including public health and community leaders representing minority and underserved communities throughout the state of Michigan. This committee is committed to providing ongoing guidance, advice, and support for this new project focused on community health benefit.

Although the US health system is evolving to focus more on community health and social determinants of health, there is little incentive for healthcare organizations (HCOs) to have ongoing collaborations with communities in order to prioritize and address community needs or to improve health equity. Engaging underserved and minority communities in setting health priorities could influence decisions made by HCOs and other entities, encourage HCOs to prioritize work on community identified needs, and encourage HCOs to be more inclusive and transparent in their decision-making and required investments in their communities.

Susan Dorr Goold, U-M Medical School
Zachary Rowe, Friends of Parkside
Karen Calhoun, Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research (MICHR)
Jen Skillicorn, Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine (CBSSM)
Maryn Lewallen, Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine (CBSSM)

Many area households do not have enough access to healthy, affordable food. This food insecurity is associated with poverty and numerous health problems in both children and adults. Evidence suggests that teaching cooking skills can help people better manage food insecurity by teaching them how to better reduce food waste, budget and plan meals, and cook healthy meals with inexpensive ingredients.

In this new research partnership between Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS), the University of Michigan Medical School and the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, team members will collaboratively develop and pilot a new cooking skills intervention. The project aims to:

  • Understand financial barriers, skill deficits, and preferences associated with cooking meals at home among CHASS patients living in poverty.
  • Develop a new cooking skills intervention to address food insecurity.
  • Implement and evaluate the pilot cooking skills intervention.

The findings of this study will help guide future CHASS programs and research, and the project itself may help pave the way for future collaborations with the University of Michigan in this important area of research.

Julia A. Wolfson, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Caroline Richardson, Dept. of Family Medicine, U-M Medical School
Richard Bryce, Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS)
Denise Pike, Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS)

The project: Each year, tens of thousands of Michigan households lose their homes as a result of court-ordered evictions, and Michigan cities have some of the highest eviction rates in the nation. The goal of this project is to analyze available data to better understand the prevalence, patterns, and causes of evictions in Michigan, and inform decisions by social services, legal services, and policymakers to address the problem, while also contributing to the growing national research literature on the topic.

The process: Researchers collected statewide case filing data and data from a random sample of eviction case records in Washtenaw and Lenawee counties to understand the prevalence, patterns, and causes of evictions in Michigan, and provide policy recommendations for local courts, municipalities, funders, and state government. Researchers also used a community-based participatory research approach to engage legal aid and housing stakeholders in the research process.

Results: This project found in 2018, the statewide eviction filing rate—that is, the number of filings per rental household—was 17%. This means there was about one eviction case filed for every 6 rental housing units in the state. Only 4.8% of tenants were represented by an attorney in eviction cases filed in 2014-2018, compared to 83.2% of landlords.

A statewide multivariate analysis showed the number of eviction cases filed within a census tract is related to the percent of single mother households, number of mortgage foreclosures, and percent of population living in mobile homes. In urban areas, the number of cases is positively related to additional factors, including the percent African American, percent of the population under 18, and percent of housing units vacant in the census tract

More information: Learn more about the key findings and see the eviction filing rate by county and census tract in Michigan

Robert Goodspeed, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Margaret Dewar, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning University of Michigan
Elizabeth Benton, Michigan Advocacy Program

This project is grounded in the perspective that the criminal justice system is broken. Over-criminalization and reliance on retributive punishment have resulted in a system of oppression that entrenches poverty and harms those on the margins. By shifting the focus to healing, rather than punishment, the criminal justice system can simultaneously address the root causes of offending behavior and improve lives while enhancing public safety.
Street Democracy, a non-profit organization located in Detroit, Michigan, will implement a pilot Functional Sentencing program in Southeast Michigan. Street Democracy, founded in 2006, is comprised of a small group of attorneys and legal researchers whose mission is to reform the systems that create and perpetuate poverty in Detroit. In contrast to traditional sentencing, where the focus is on punitive mechanisms such as fines and fees, the Functional Sentencing program proposed by Street Democracy attempts to “help an individual permanently exit the criminal justice system by replacing fines and costs with targeted interventions (e.g. job placement and medical services) that address the root causes of an individual’s offense” (Street Democracy, 2018). In 2017, Street Democracy successfully launched an initial pilot of a similar Functional Sentencing program in the 31st District Court in Hamtramck, Michigan.

This new collaboration with University of Michigan-Dearborn will research and implement a more permanent, larger-scale version of this program in order to lay the foundation for expanding the availability of Functional Sentencing throughout Michigan, as well as improve methods of collecting data on clients who have gone through the process. More broadly, this research project will contribute to understanding about problem-solving courts, identifying the factors that may be most effective in reducing recidivism, as well as help illustrate the ways in which alternative sentencing structures may contribute to improving trust in the judicial system.

Francine Banner, Sociology, UM-Dearborn, Sociology
Jayesh Patel, Street Democracy
Lara Rusch, Political Science, UM-Dearborn
Jessica Camp, Social Work, UM-Dearborn
Rachel Buzzeo, Behavioral Sciences, UM-Dearborn


2019 Poverty Solutions Faculty Grants

Within the Midwest, Michigan has the highest rate of youth disconnected from the educational and work opportunities necessary for adult well-being. Trauma may well be a crucial player in this disconnect, contributing to later experiences of poverty. New research has shed light on the potential of trauma-informed care (TIC) and Restorative Practices (RP) to improve opportunities not only in mental health, but in youth economic development programs as well.

This study will provide data analysis toward understanding trauma’s impact on high school graduation and youth’s economic well-being and labor market participation. The analysis will be applied to data from Jobs for America’s Graduates in Detroit that tracks intake and graduating statistics like testing scores, employment, post-secondary education and earnings. Researchers will compare the barriers to high school graduation with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s seventeen areas of trauma in order to determine the impact of trauma on later-life successes. These findings will be used to provide better, trauma-informed pathways for disadvantaged youth across Detroit and the state at large.

Jessica K. Camp, U-M Dearborn Department of Health and Human Services
Tracy S. Hall, U-M Dearborn Office of Metropolitan Impact

Labor-intensive manufacturing is growing rapidly in developing countries. Yet significant wage gaps exist both across geographic and gender boundaries: the urban-rural wage gap is as high as 45% in some areas of India. Industries that specifically carry disproportionate amounts of female employees, such as garment production, could provide a way to enhance successful migration and provide important job skills, and thus begin to narrow gender and wage gaps in labor participation. This project will analyze and address methods to alleviate the barriers to successful rural-to-urban migration for women.

Partnered with one of the world’s largest garment manufacturers in India, researchers will run a randomized controlled trial that aims to facilitate Indian women’s rural-urban migration and assess impacts on the wellbeing of workers and their families. Ten vocational training centers will be established at randomized locations across the Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, covering women living in more than 1,200 villages. The centers will provide vocational skills and a guaranteed employment match in urban Bangalore following training. Extensive panel data will be collected on women from nearly 3,000 households, and impacts on women’s experiences of increased bargaining power, well-being, and annual income will be assessed.

Achyuta Adhvaryu, U-M Ross School of Business
Anant Nyshadham, Boston College Department of Economics
Huayu Xu, U-M Department of Economics

Work can be a vehicle for dehumanization of workers–think human trafficking, or even legitimate opportunities that use workers as commodities. Moreover, in vulnerable populations in particular, the realities of housing, transportation, or childcare may serve as critical barriers to employment. The aim of this project is to study how positive organizations instill work with dignity and empowerment, and nurture thriving individuals with better access to resources that help alleviate poverty.

The project will perform a small-scale evaluation of positive organizations that balance the productivity and well-being of vulnerable employee populations. Employment in such organizations could illuminate one pathway out of poverty. In particular, the findings will be used to direct organizational interventions to promote human trafficking survivor reintegration and rehumanization.

Building on Positive Organizational Scholarship, the analysis will assess positive organizational practices such as a purpose-driven mission, openness to failure, and authenticity, as well as the experienced thriving and relationship quality of vulnerable employees. In exploring the role of positive organizational practices in poverty reduction, this research may illuminate both long- and short-term effects for employees in positive workplaces, from psychological healing to the growth of a sustainable career path.

Mari Kira, U-M Department of Psychology, Center for Positive Organizations
Bridgette Carr, U-M Law School, Center for Positive Organizations
Christina Carmichael, Project Director, The Rehumanizing Workplace Project

Unemployment Insurance (UI) has historically provided stability to families through periods of economic hardship, keeping 3.2 million individuals out of poverty nationally in 2010. Over the past eight years, a variety of reforms have reduced the duration of benefit eligibility by 6 weeks and restricted eligibility for UI, spiking the rate of claims denials to 41% by 2016. These changes have denied benefits to thousands of unemployment insurance claimants. The number of unemployed workers who are applying for UI is also decreasing.

This project will acquire newly available claims and adjudication data for people across Michigan who have claimed benefits during the period from 2012-2018 in order to evaluate the performance of Michigan’s UI system following the legislative changes. Before analysis and accessible publication, the data will be privatized to protect claimants’ identities. Among other things the data will be analyzed for how often and what reasons late appeals adjudication were granted. The results will provide quantitative support for the UI Policy Clinic’s ongoing projects as well as ongoing research into the impact of recent legislative reforms.

Steve Gray, U-M Law School

Access to banking and credit are important tools in overcoming poverty. But studies have shown that bias plays a role in the banking system, which may impact consumers most in need of financial services. This project will gather in-depth, qualitative information about the impact of decision-making among front-line financial service employees. Employees that regularly interact with consumers in financial service institutions make many discretionary decisions, such as charging overdraft fees, which have been shown to be biased. In turn, biased decisions can further marginalize low income consumers and consumers of color and mitigate the benefits of anti-poverty programs. Ensuring that consumers can continue to engage with and trust their financial institutions is paramount in preventing and alleviating poverty.

The researchers will interview dozens of financial service employees in Southeast Michigan, focusing on a daily narrative of experience and decision-making. Afterward, the interviews will be used to design a study to test the impact of discretionary decisions on the consumer. The aim of the study is to provide policymakers, consumer advocates, and financial service professionals with the information they need to revise consumer protections and ensure equal banking access.

Terri Friedline, U-M School of Social Work


2018 Community-Academic Grant Awards

In 2016, over 9,700 family households across Michigan, accounting for 24,766 people, entered an emergency shelter due to homelessness. The majority of these households were headed by a single female with one or two children under eleven years of age. Prior research has demonstrated that more than 90% of mothers who become homeless have significant histories of childhood trauma, as well as episodes of domestic violence and victimization in adult years.

A new project will expand upon an existing evidence-based intervention developed by a team from the University of Michigan School of Nursing and the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) in Detroit, which has been used with women to facilitate their disclosure and meaning-making of traumatic life experiences, and support help seeking activities.

This research team has worked closely with the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) in Detroit, an agency that provides emergency, transitional, and permanent supportive housing services to families, to better understand the life events and needs of their clients. This project will refine and adapt existing interventions for use with homeless women. The team will also partner with Community Health and Social Services (CHASS) and SOS Community Services to develop an on-site integrative care model that streamlines and sustains access to acceptable and affordable/covered trauma-informed health services for women from shelter to rehousing.

Laura E. Gultekin, University of Michigan School of Nursing
Barbara L. Brush, University of Michigan School of Nursing
Denise Saint Arnault, University of Michigan School of Nursing
Delphia Simmons, Coalition on Temporary Shelter
Richard Bryce, Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS)
Sharon Lapides, SOS Community Services
Kathleen Durkin, University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry

How can digital tools facilitate mentorship for an inclusive population? The Eastside Community Network and the University of Michigan School of Information will answer this question through an evaluation of the Lower Eastside Economic Mobility (LEEM) program’s impact on low-income participants’ psychosocial wellbeing and the perceived effectiveness of the program toward increasing employment and economic self-sufficiency.

This project will assign mentors to participants from three Detroit ZIP codes; assess the impact of the program on participating community members’ hope, self-efficacy, self-sufficiency, social support, and perceptions of their economic and psychosocial development; and explore opportunities for digital tools to support these programs in the future. Broadly, the results of this project will lead to a more refined approach to mentorship programs that support economic mobility.

Tawanna Dillahunt, University of Michigan School of Information
Donna Givens, Eastside Community Network
Angela Brown Wilson, Eastside Community Network

In the fall of 2015, Alternatives for Girls successfully piloted a new “Asset Building” model to encourage middle school girls and their families to academically prepare for high school, career and college, and to save for future post‐secondary education and training expenses.

The next phase of work will support up to 60 middle and high school girls and their families to prepare for success in school, career and college, and to save for future costs by matching funds saved by families for college costs.

Alternatives For Girls is focusing on enhancing program robustness, further engaging parents, and strengthening linkages to other college access resources in Detroit. Dr. Trina Shanks, of the University of Michigan School of Social Work, will assist AFG in identifying and implementing interventions that can strengthen the existing program to achieve more asset building and poverty alleviation results.

The partnership is committed to serving these girls on a long‐term basis, and aims that each participant will save $1,000 to $4,000 toward her education by high school completion. Each girl will graduate from high school and enter a post‐secondary education/training program, and will complete a post‐secondary training program, or at least the first two years of college.

Trina Shanks, University of Michigan School of Social Work
Melody Moore, Alternatives for Girls

The project: In March 2017, a commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) by two physicians called for research on the potential “chilling effect” that increased immigration enforcement under the new presidential administration would have on immigrant’s willingness to seek healthcare or government services. Given that the timely receipt of health and social services can be a successful poverty-alleviation strategy, this barrier to health and social services for immigrant populations could exacerbate and prolong poverty. Because healthcare and access to other social services is critical for preventing and alleviating poverty, neighborhood Federally Qualified Health Centers are a vital resource for immigrants living in the surrounding community. This project aimed to identify new and promising strategies for how these health centers can provide healthcare and social services to undocumented immigrants and their families in this context of increased immigration enforcement.

The process: Investigators at Community Health and Social Service Center (CHASS) in Detroit, Washtenaw Health Plan in Ypsilanti, Packard Health in Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan conducted in-depth interviews with 28 frontline healthcare and social service providers in 2018 to better understand the barriers to and facilitators of healthcare for their immigrant clients.

Results: The researchers found undocumented clients encounter three phases of delay: delay in the decision to seek care, delay in identifying and traveling to healthcare facilities, and delay in receiving adequate and appropriate care at healthcare facilities. Given the current socio-political climate for immigrants, they recommend healthcare and social services organizations that serve undocumented clients should adapt existing services or introduce new services, including those that are not site-based like telemedicine, home visits by providers, and harnessing a workforce of community health workers.

More information: Barriers and facilitators to healthcare and social services among undocumented Latino(a)/Latinx immigrant clients: Perspectives from frontine service providers in Southeast Michigan

Paul J. Fleming, Ph.D., M.P.H., U-M Assistant Professor, Dept. of Health Behavior & Health Education, School of Public Health
William D. Lopez, Ph.D., M.P.H., U-M Postdoctoral Fellow, Dept. of Health Behavior & Health Education, School of Public Health
Richard Bryce, D.O., Chief Medical Officer, Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS)


2018 Faculty Grant Awards and Funded Projects

In the United States, nearly half of pregnancies are unintended, and unintended pregnancies occur five times more often among poor compared to affluent women. The consequences of unintended pregnancy for women’s education and earnings are substantial, and children born as a result of unintended pregnancy are much more likely to live in poverty compared to children whose births are intended.

The implications of unintended pregnancies for older siblings are comparatively understudied, but children born to women who subsequently have an unintended pregnancy are likely to be affected by her decreased income and by the need to distribute household resources across more children. This project lays the ground work for a novel study of the effects of unintended pregnancies on older children. Building upon a large randomized control trial in Michigan that increases the affordability of contraceptives for women, researchers examine the short and long-term outcomes for older children in terms of their schooling, juvenile delinquency, foster care, and participation in public transfer programs.

Martha J. Bailey, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics, and Research Professor
Institute for Social Research

Paula Fomby, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor
Institute for Social Research

Alfia Karimova, Ph.D.
Assistant Research Scientist
Institute for Social Research

Food insecurity, a condition of limited or uncertain access to nutritious food, is a critical issue for students’ health, academic achievement, and future well-being. Recent studies, including one conducted at the University of Michigan in 2015, have shown unprecedented high levels of food insecurity on college campuses. This mixed-methods project will assess the current prevalence, risk factors, and consequences of food insecurity through an online survey representative of the U-M student body, and use in-depth interviews to qualitatively explore the lived experience of food-insecure students as well as innovative strategies to address food insecurity on campus. Results of this project will be disseminated to various campus stakeholders to inform the development of programs and policies that effectively alleviate food insecurity on campus.

Cindy Leung, ScD, MPH
Assistant Professor Department of Nutritional Sciences
School of Public Health

Alicia Cohen, MD MSc
Clinical Lecturer
Department of Family Medicine, School of Medicine

Nicole Kasper, Ph.D.

Research Scientist
Department of Nutritional Sciences, School of Public Health

Energy poverty, or the gap in energy affordability, is a burden on low-income households amounting to millions of dollars in utility arrears. This burden negatively impacts a household’s long-term health, education, employment, and financial stability.

Energy efficiency offers an opportunity to address energy poverty through energy waste reduction measures such as LED lighting, energy-efficient HVAC systems, and insulation.

Current state policies requiring utility-managed energy efficiency programs, aimed at producing statewide reductions in energy demand, often distribute funding and program benefits disproportionately across socioeconomic groups, although a spectrum of policy measures exist that should steer policy investments and outcomes towards greater equity.

This study, evaluates the current state of equity in energy efficiency programs across state policies, and estimates the impact on the state’s home energy affordability gap if program investments were more equitable. Using a new metric called the equitable energy efficiency (E3) baseline, researchers will be able to measure the effectiveness of state policies at achieving equitable outcomes for low-income households.

The results will help guide state policy makers, regulatory agencies, utility decision makers, and energy affordability practitioners to create policies and programs that more equitably direct hundreds of millions of annual residential ratepayer-funded dollars toward the reduction of each state’s severe home energy affordability gap.

Tony G. Reames, Ph.D., P.E.
Assistant Professor
School for Environment and Sustainability

Ben Stacey
Graduate Research Assistant
School for Environment and Sustainability Taubman College of Urban & Regional Planning

Wealth plays a pervasive and pernicious role in transmitting inequality. Wealth—assets like savings and financial holdings such as housing—differs from income—wages, salaries, and cash assistance from the government—and is generally more unequally distributed than income. This contributes to widening social inequality, including impacts on educational attainment.

Wealth demonstrably impacts youth development and educational attainment, but the mechanisms resulting in this phenomenon are not yet established. This project leverages the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics to track family wealth, including identifying key opportunities to intervene across childhood and adolescence that could lead to higher educational attainment during adulthood.

The results could inform policies to help more Americans save and build wealth, creating optimal environments for high educational achievement, increasing social mobility, and equalizing opportunity.

Matthew A. Diemer, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Combined Program in Education and Psychology & Educational Studies; Faculty Associate, Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research

Fabian Pfeffer, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
Research Assistant Professor and PSID Co-Investigator, Institute for Social Research

Rashmita Mistry, Ph.D.
Professor, Human Development and Psychology

Aixa Marchand, a Ph.D. candidate
Combined Program in Education & Psychology

People living with serious mental illness disproportionately live in chronic poverty; conversely, poverty is a risk factor for mental health problems. While 70% of people with serious mental illness want to work, only 10-15% are employed, in part because social and cognitive challenges may interfere with finding a job.

This project explores innovative ways that people with serious mental illness can obtain vocational support from Certified Peer Support Specialists (individuals with a lived experience of mental illness who have obtained training on how to serve others with similar experiences), and focuses on whether a virtual reality job interview training program (see can be effectively delivered by a Peer Support Specialist.

This project aims to inform best practices for job preparation programs for people with serious mental illness, and improve vocational and personal outcomes.

Adrienne Lapidos, Ph.D.
Assistant Research Scientist
School of Social Work
Treatment Innovation and Dissemination Lab (TIDL)

Matthew Smith, Ph.D., MSW, MPE, LCSW
Associate Professor
School of Social Work
Treatment Innovation and Dissemination Lab (TIDL)

Michele Heisler, MD, MPH
Professor Michigan Medicine
Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation faculty affiliate

Technological innovation seems to have enormous potential to improve the lives of the poor, from improving sanitation to increasing access to education. But these interventions often have limited user interest and uptake. This project examines whether we can do a better job of leveraging technology for the poor, with a specific focus in India. This project investigates the politics that shape development of these technologies, both at the international level and within India. Understanding these politics is a key step towards transparency in policy making, and towards ensuring that technologies are chosen and implemented in ways that poor citizens want and need.

Shobita Parthasarathy, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies
Ford School of Public Policy

With today’s young adults facing increasing financial pressures, it is parents that often come to the rescue. Older adults from working-class backgrounds often provide help to their adult children and extended families, which can affect family relationships, and their own economic well-being, particularly in retirement. This effort will explore the impacts of these arrangements.

While parents are important sources of assistance for adult children, labor market and demographic shifts may both increase the need for help among younger generations but also strain the resources of those who provide help, particularly more economically vulnerable workers.

Study findings may suggest needed reforms to the social safety net and to the ways we think about retirement so that poverty is both alleviated and prevented. These include reforms that would make it easier for families to access public benefits, putting less stress on the private safety net as well as reforms that do not penalize economically vulnerable retirees for providing assistance.

Kristin S. Seefeldt, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Social Work
School of Social Work
Assistant Professor of Public Policy
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

Environmental justice research has shown that low income neighborhoods and communities of color, such as those in Southwest Detroit, are more likely to experience higher levels of pollution. In the Southwest Detroit, residential and commercial areas are in close proximity to ongoing heavy industries and high-volume transportation corridors, increasing concerns about the local air and surface water quality. These challenges are further exacerbated by illegal dumping, with piles of garbage, particularly used tires, frequently dumped in this community. These dumping sites may be accumulating toxic levels of heavy metals that can cause serious health issues such as cancer.

This project aims to test the soil of illegal dumping sites and identify strategies to remove and transform these sites by constructing two bioretention areas. Bioretention rain gardens utilize physical, chemical, and biological removal mechanisms to improve stormwater quality before discharge into the environment.

This project not only increases our knowledge of rain gardens’ water quality impacts, but also contributes to better understanding the importance of bioretention in addressing poverty and environmental justice inequities through improving the quality of the local environment, reducing residents’ exposure to hazardous contaminants, and adding green space.

Larissa Larsen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning
U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Sarah J. Clark
Director of Programs Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision

Andrea R. McFarland, Ph.D. Candidate
U-M Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Nancy G. Love, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

According to the USDA, 15.6 million households were food insecure at some point in 2016. For these households, sources of free food – like food banks, churches, and other nonprofit organizations – are critical to their day-to-day survival. Food Finder, a nonprofit organization, is already working to create the first fully verified database of free food sources for every community across the country. By individually verifying basic information about each site, it hopes to allow those who seek free food to access it quickly and easily. Poverty Solutions will partner with Food Finder to pilot a new verification process of all full-time emergency food assistance providers by leveraging the resources of the university. This database will connect food insecure families with trusted sources of free food near them, based only on their current location, and using technology they already have and use every day. The award winning mobile application, coupled with U-M’s research expertise, has the potential to have a real impact on hungry families across the country.

Poverty Solutions will then also have a robust source of data on these feeding sites. Where are they? How do they serve their communities? Researchers interested in food insecurity and the food provider landscape across the country will have access to this database.

Julia Weinert, Managing Director
Poverty Solutions

Lynn Griffin, Executive Director
Food Finders


2017 Community-Academic Grant Awards

Group of volunteers

The project: Sometimes small barriers, solvable with relatively minor amounts of funding, present major obstacles for those living in poverty. For many Detroit residents, these barriers prevent them from making progress toward their goals of economic self-sufficiency.Through a partnership between the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and Focus: HOPE, a nonprofit civil and human rights organization based in Detroit, this project team introduced and evaluated a “Barrier Buster” pilot program that provided small financial awards to address these challenges. This new barrier buster approach intended to promote economic self-sufficiency among low-income Detroit residents, with the potential to inform future programming in the region and across the country.

The process: The research group designed and implemented a Barrier Buster fund, and a group of leaders from HOPE Village Neighborhood Network’s partner organizations developed procedures to recruit participants, select recipients of the funds. and disperse the awards. The Neighborhood Network group anonymously nominated community members who, they believed, would use the Barrier Buster funds to overcome a barrier and reach a specific goal related to self sufficiency. 

The study tracked outcomes for 11 nominees who received Barrier Buster awards ranging from $500 to $2,000 — with an average amount of $863 — and a comparison group of four nominees who did not receive Barrier Buster awards. The study included pre- and post-program interviews, as well as follow-up interviews with a sub-sample of participants.

Results: The study found credit scores improved more for people who received a Barrier Buster award than those in the comparison group. Total self-sufficiency (a combination of scores on 11 domains of self-sufficiency) increased for both groups, but more for participants who received a Barrier Buster award. 

The study also found most individuals who received Barrier Buster awards used them for the purposes they described when they requested the funds. Those who did not use the funds as initially intended instead spent the money on other needs that arose, which typically still contributed to the same end goal. 

“These findings are contrary to criticisms rooted in negative stereotypes that contend that low-income people will use unrestricted funds for recreational purposes,” states a working paper on the Barrier Busters study. “Moreover, these findings suggest a major benefit of unrestricted cash transfers, in that they allow recipients to address immediate needs that may arise and interfere with progress toward their primary goals.”  

More information: Barrier Busters: Unconditional Cash Transfers as a Strategy to Promote Economic Self-Sufficiency

Michael Gordon, U-M Ross School of Business
Stephanie Moore, Center for Education Design, Evaluation & Research (CEDER) and U-M School of Education
Julie Gowda, Focus: HOPE
Debbie Fisher, Focus: HOPE

House key on wood floor

The project: Each year, non-payment of property taxes causes thousands of Detroit residents to lose their homes to tax foreclosure. Detroit’s exceptionally high tax rate disproportionately burdens low-income residents, threatening their ability to maintain homeownership and attain long-term financial stability. Michigan law requires local governing bodies to make a Poverty Tax Exemption (PTE) available for homeowners in poverty who own and occupy their property. By reducing or eliminating property taxes for low-income homeowners, this policy works to alleviate poverty by decreasing household tax burden and preventing the devastating financial consequences of property tax foreclosure.

While approximately 12,000 Detroit homeowners living in poverty qualify for the PTE, the policy remains underutilized by residents in need. In partnership with the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), the Healthy Environments Partnership (HEP) and researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, this project evaluated the effectiveness of the policy and studied potential factors that may hinder or facilitate its access. Findings can inform best practices across local governing bodies to strengthen this policy’s ability to alleviate poverty in Detroit and statewide.

The process: Researchers interviewed 105 Detroit homeowners who sought walk-in counseling assistance with the United Community Housing Coalition Tax Foreclosure Prevention Project in 2017. The majority of participants in the study owned their homes outright (91%), while 5% had land contracts. About 64% of the households were unemployed. 

Results: The study found many homeowners who were eligible for the HPTAP in prior years did not apply for the exemption because they did not know it existed or that they qualified. Some people now face tax debt and foreclosure for back taxes they could have been exempt from paying. 

Even if homeowners were aware of the Poverty Tax Exemption, they still faced considerable barriers at each stage of the application process that prevented them from receiving the exemption. Challenges stemmed from the application’s complex documentation requirements and procedural demands, and were often compounded by the multiple social, economic, and/or physical vulnerabilities faced by applicants. 

The study made recommendations for next steps to increase awareness of the Poverty Tax Exemption, make it easier for homeowners to access and complete the PTE application process, hold the city accountable for notifying residents of the status of their PTE application, and alleviate the financial burden of back taxes. 

More information: Preventing owner-occupied property tax foreclosures in Detroit: Improving access to the Poverty Tax Exemption

Roshanak Mehdipanah, U-M School of Public Health
Alexa Eisenberg, U-M School of Public Health
Ted Phillips, United Community Housing Coalition
Michele Oberholtzer, United Community Housing Coalition

Doctor and patient in living room

The project: Health and poverty are inextricably linked. Health problems interfere with work and education, and poverty exacerbates health problems, producing a cycle of negative influence that maintains both poverty and ill-health. An effective approach to improve health is through community health workers (CHWs) recruited from and working in their home neighborhoods. Such positions also provide jobs within those same neighborhoods, lower costs for health care and insurance providers, improve health outcomes for community members, and increase economic attainment.

This project developed a new model for employing CHWs to serve the Detroit Cody Rouge neighborhood. U-M’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation (IHPI), the Detroit Health Department, Joy-Southfield Community Development Corporation, Inc., and five Detroit Medicaid health plans all partnered to facilitate the program. 

The process: In the summer of 2017, the project team interviewed 14 community leaders representing 10 organizations to get a better sense of the neighborhood’s key needs, priorities, and possible facilitators and barriers to implementing a one-year community health worker demonstration program. 

Five community health workers employed by Detroit Medicaid health plans and three program trainees—Cody Rouge residents interested in becoming CHWs—participated in a 10-week Michigan Community Health Worker Alliance training program. 

Results: This project focused on the pre-implementation phase, and the researchers have since secured additional grant funding and a commitment from three Detroit Medicaid health plans to provide community health workers for the program for 1.5 years. 

Of the 14 community leaders interviewed in the summer of 2017, four were invited to participate in an advisory board that will help guide Cody Rouge’s community health worker program. One of the community health workers received additional training on how to train other CHWs, and the health plan partners worked together to develop health interventions that meet their needs as well as the community’s. 

Michele Heisler, U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation
David J. Law, Joy-Southfield Community Development Corporation
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Detroit Health Department

Detroit neighborhood

The project: The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program is the nation’s largest source of financing for building or rehabilitating affordable housing. The sale of the credits provides equity to help finance the production of decent affordable housing for low-income renters who are in or near poverty, many of whom are elderly or disabled or have experienced chronic homelessness. But once projects reach 15 years of operation, investors can sell their ownership, often leaving affordable housing projects in need of new sources of capital to provide much needed maintenance. In Detroit, more than 7,700 units have reached or will reach 15 years of operation between 2016 and 2022, so finding solutions to restructuring financing and management is an urgent need. 

For more than three years, U-M researchers have teamed with a Detroit LIHTC task force to analyze the financing and ownership to preserve decent affordable housing after this critical time frame. Through this partnership, researchers determined strategies to help address the looming crisis.

The process: Researchers reviewed as many projects’ financial information as possible using 2015 audits, identified outcomes for projects that already have passed year 15, studied the financial and physical conditions of the projects that will reach year 15 between 2016 and 2022, and identified promising practices that other weak-market cities have used to preserve affordable housing after year 15.

Results:  The study included 155 properties placed in service since 1990 that have passed year 15, and researchers found the majority of those properties are continuing as affordable housing without recapitalization. Most cannot support additional debt and will face challenges making substantial repairs when needed. 

Of the 105 properties reaching year 15 between 2016 and 2022, researchers received 2015 financial audits for 63 of them. The financial analysis showed projects are more financially stressed in Detroit than in the nation as a whole.

The research resulted in a report identifying promising practices weak-market cities have used to preserve affordable housing after year 15 of LIHTC, and Detroit’s Department of Housing and Revitalization built on the task force’s work in its strategic plan to preserve affordable housing. 

Margaret Dewar, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Lan Deng, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Sarida Scott, Community Development Advocates of Detroit
Ruth Johnson, Community Development Advocates of Detroit
Julie Schneider, Detroit Department of Housing and Revitalization
Rebecca Labov, Detroit Department of Housing and Revitalization
Tahirih Ziegler, Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation
Victor Alba, Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation
Tim Thorland, Southwest Housing Solutions
Kirby Burkholder, IFF
Yulonda Byrd, Cinnaire


2017 Faculty Grant Awards and Funded Projects

Gavel on top of hundred-dollar billsThe project: 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 result 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) developed and tested an objective digital method of evaluating litigants’ ability to pay. The method helps defendants provide courts with a complete picture of their financial stability in a fair manner and assists courts in exploring alternative sanctions for those who cannot pay. The goal is 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. 

The process: U-M Law School, local tech start-up Court Innovations, and local courts partnered to implement online dispute resolution in six Michigan courts serving communities with higher-than-average poverty rates. 

Researchers evaluated how judges determine low-income defendants’ ability to pay fines and fees using remote court technology. They wanted to examine whether the ability-to-pay tool would reduce bias, make courts more accessible, and improve upon existing in-person determination procedures. 

Results: Tentative results from this study suggest the ability-to-pay online tool offers a highly efficient, time-saving mechanism for people to coordinate with courts to resolve outstanding fees without having to face the barriers of taking time off work, finding childcare, or otherwise spending a day in court. 

The evaluation found the ability-to-pay online dispute tool greatly improved the judicial measurement of ability to pay for low-income defendants and helped to reduce bias. 

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

JJ Prescott, U-M Law School
Meghan O’Neil, U-M Institute for Social Research

The project: More than 85% of persistently poor counties in the U.S. are rural, and yet, researchers and policymakers overwhelmingly focus on urban poverty. This study set out to gain a better understanding of the factors likely to contribute to material hardship and financial instability in rural areas and to assess the availability of community resources for low-income rural households.

The process: The study analyzed federal household financial survey data from 2013 to 2016 for more than 66,000 low- to moderate-income tax filers in order to compile demographic information on varying levels of financial instability in urban and rural areas. To determine the availability of nonprofit resources, the study divided total nonprofit program expenses in 688 commuting zones by the number of people with incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty line (about $50,000 for a family four). Each zone is classified as rural or urban in order to discern whether there’s a difference in available resources depending on the type of area.

Results: The study found significant differences in the financial hardship of low-income rural households and low-income urban households. Urban households had higher liquid assets and net worth, and they were more likely to have a checking and savings account, credit cards, health insurance, and to regularly save money. Rural households had higher rates of car and home ownership. Overall, rural households had significantly higher rates of all types of material and healthcare hardship compared to urban households with similar income levels.

On the point of available community resources, the study found there were significantly more nonprofit organizations in urban areas compared to rural areas, but the per capita spending on nonprofit programs was comparable. Those results varied by region, with the South seeing fewer resources in rural areas compared to urban areas, especially in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.

“This is concerning given the rural poverty rate is nearly 6 percentage points higher than the urban poverty rate in the South,” according to a paper on the study’s findings submitted to the Society for Social Work and Research’s 23rd annual conference in January 2019. “Government discretionary human service funding formulas and national and regional foundation funding priorities could be adjusted to reduce these resource disparities.”

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

Carpenter with apprentice in woodshop

The project: Digital technologies that support employment — like LinkedIn and Massive Open Online Courses — are primarily used by individuals with higher education levels. According to a 2015 Pew Research report, American job seekers with lower educational attainment would benefit the most from using digital tools to support their employment endeavors. To understand opportunities to develop these digital tools, this study examined how best to connect underserved job seekers with available work in the gig economy that could increase their employability and help them re-enter the job market. Underserved job seekers include people living in low socioeconomic areas, people who have low income and people who have limited education. They may not feel comfortable using technology to connect with employers, may not fully understand the skills needed for employment, and may not know how to clearly articulate the skills they have. The study explored effective uses of crowdsourcing to compile a list of tasks employers want completed, how to match underserved job seekers with those available jobs and what it would take to translate a series of tasks into long-term employment.

The process: In phase one, the study used Craigslist and other low-barrier gig economy platforms to compile a list of more than 400 tasks, which were labeled according to the skills needed to complete each task. The study then created mock “baseline” resumes typical for entry-level workers and mock “enhanced” resumes that included more gigs/skills to see which type of resume received the most callbacks from employers and which specific skills elicit callbacks.

In phase two, the study explored the use of online platforms to link tasks together and help workers build skills that could lead to higher-paying jobs, while earning income. The final step was to connect the online skills-building platform with the list of available gigs.

Results: The study piloted a job-search tool called DreamGigs that provided job seekers with a list of local available jobs and volunteer opportunities. DreamGigs specifies which skills job seekers need to develop in order to achieve their ideal jobs and identifies available opportunities to help them acquire those skills. The study found Craigslist lists plenty of needed tasks and does not require much digital literacy, but low-resource job seekers did not feel safe exploring jobs on Craigslist.

In terms of using an automated system to help workers build skills, the study found a series of challenges: most tasks are only available once; descriptions of tasks vary widely, making it difficult to match keywords; the way tasks are sorted by existing platforms assumes all workers are uniformly inexperienced or only shows jobs suited for their current skill set, which leaves little opportunity to build skills; and variation in pay makes it difficult to outline a path for workers to increase their pay rate as their skills progress.  

“Despite this, we see potential paths forward in using machine learning to learn more complex patterns, allowing it to help workers strategically bridge work opportunities to build and evidence their skills,” the study’s final report states.

More information: DreamGigs: Designing a tool to empower low-resource job seekers

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

Children in produce section of supermarketThe project: This case study of Washtenaw County examines the impact of the 2017 changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Michigan’s new work requirement and time limit for receiving SNAP benefits rolled out in January 2017 meant 3,346 people in Washtenaw County could potentially lose their food assistance. Washtenaw County has one of the lowest percentages of residents using SNAP benefits in the state, so the effects of the SNAP eligibility change likely would be felt even more acutely in other Michigan counties.

Reduced public assistance places more burden on civil society organizations to support people in poverty, and the study wanted to look at whether:

  • Food assistance agencies saw increased demand for emergency food assistance;
  • More people fell behind on rent and utilities and requiring more housing assistance because they have to spend more out-of-pocket money on food;
  • The local Department of Health and Human Services office saw an increased caseload as people tried to understand why their benefits were cut; and
  • Farmers markets that leveraged SNAP dollars through programs like Double Up Food Bucks saw a decrease in SNAP shoppers.

The process: The study analyzed data from food assistance agencies, housing organizations and farmers markets from 2012 through early summer of 2017 in order to assess the impact of SNAP changes in 2013, 2015, and 2017. To provide additional context, the study also included interviews with staff from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Washtenaw County office, housing assistance programs, food assistance institutions, and former SNAP recipients.

Results: Of 101 food assistance agencies surveyed, 1-in-6 said they saw an increase in clients who had recently lost their SNAP benefits.

Eight of the 15 food assistance agencies that participated in follow-up interviews said they saw an increase in requests to volunteer, which possibly was the result of people trying to use community service hours to meet the SNAP work requirements. However, six out of 13 people who had recently lost their SNAP benefits did not know volunteer service counted toward the work requirement, the study found.

A drop in total SNAP payments made to Washtenaw County residents in 2017 corresponded with a drop in SNAP spending and Double Up Food Bucks redeemed that year at Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti farmers markets, which shows the impact of SNAP benefits on the local economy.

Another notable finding was that 44% of civil society organizations that offered five or more services – like food assistance, transportation, and other necessities – saw an increase in clients after the 2017 SNAP changes went into effect. Principal investigator Lesli Hoey said that indicates people who are food insecure have multiple needs, and the study recommended promoting key agencies that offer wraparound services.

“As other research has found, most individuals who go on and off SNAP attempt to find work even when time limits are not in effect, suggesting that the time limit may not be necessary to encourage work,” states the study’s final report. “The management of time limit requirements, therefore, may be drawing human and financial resources away from other vital poverty alleviation services.”

More information: Rolling out the SNAP work requirements in Michigan: the Washtenaw County experience

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

The project: Stable housing is very important as it relates to economic, physical, and emotional well-being. However, as housing affordability has declined in the past 15 years, housing
has become more unstable, which impacts the housing and living arrangements of low-income families.

Housing vouchers help improve housing outcomes, but only 24% of 19 million eligible households receive that type of assistance. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) could offer another avenue to improve housing outcomes for low-income households. The EITC provides a cash refund to about 26 million working low- and moderate-income households every year, and the refund amount is determined by income level and number of children. States also have EITCs that are typically a percentage of the federal EITC.

Between 1975 and 2016, the maximum federal EITC refund grew from $1,700 to $6,300, in 2016 dollars. The study aimed to determine whether more generous EITC refunds would improve the housing outcomes of low-income unmarried mothers.

The process: Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, Current Population Survey, and American Community Survey, the study focused on unmarried mothers because they are the primary recipients of EITC, are most likely to experience poor housing outcomes, and their children are vulnerable to the detrimental effects of housing instability.

Housing outcomes examined included homelessness, eviction, cost burden (spending 30% or more of income on housing), severe cost burden (spending 50% or more of income on housing), household crowding, and doubled-up living arrangements like living with other adults who are not part of the nuclear family or multi-generational households.    

Results: The study found a $1,000 increase in the EITC improved housing outcomes by reducing housing cost burdens and crowding, but it had no effect on eviction or homelessness. Increases in the EITC also reduced doubled-up living arrangements and multi-generational households, suggesting mothers prefer to live independently. Mothers also were more likely to be named on their lease or mortgage, which may increase housing stability.

“Implementing or expanding EITCs may be an effective way to address some pressing housing issues. By improving housing outcomes and increasing the stability in living arrangements of children, the EITC may help reduce the intergenerational consequences of housing instability,” states a peer-reviewed article on the study that was accepted in January to be published in the Population Association of America’s “Demography” journal.

More information: The effect of income on housing and living arrangements: evidence from the Earned Income Tax Credit

Tots or Teens: Who benefits from refundable tax credits?

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

Crowd at train stop

The project: A lack of reliable transportation can exacerbate symptoms of poverty and in some cases even cause poverty by making it difficult to secure employment or access services. Yet transportation is often overlooked as a dimension of poverty. Currently, mobility is measured by single factors like car ownership or neighborhood accessibility. Creating a new Transportation Security Index could provide a more comprehensive measure of whether people can travel where they need to go, regardless of mode of travel or neighborhood context. Modeled after the Food Security Index that raised awareness of hunger in America, the Transportation Security Index aims to offer new insights on how transportation-related policies and programs affect poverty and socioeconomic mobility.

The process: Based on a survey of 511 people, the investigators organized symptoms of transportation insecurity into six categories: lateness; skipping trips; spending a long time planning, waiting, or traveling; social isolation; feeling unsafe; and worrying.Those categories were used to inform survey questions for the preliminary Transportation Security Index, and the approach and analysis has undergone two rounds of peer review.

Results: The study found there are two dimensions to transportation insecurity: material and relational. The 16-question preliminary Transportation Security Index survey asks about material impact like being late getting somewhere or feeling stuck at home, as well as relational impact like feeling embarrassed about a lack of transportation and worrying about inconveniencing others due to a need for help with transportation.

To validate the preliminary Transportation Security Index, the researchers fielded a nationally representative survey in May 2018. Data from that survey will determine if the index can be validated and replicated, and the results will inform articles on the correlation of transportation insecurity and other types of hardship associated with poverty.

In the meantime, parts of the Transportation Security Index survey have been used to study food insecurity among U-M students and as part of a neighborhood survey by Detroit Metropolitan Area Communities Study.

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