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Poverty Solutions

By Alex Piazza

More than 43 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line.

That equates to 1 in 8 Americans being poor, according to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

And of those 43 million impoverished Americans, a third of them are children.



“Despite the billions of dollars that government and charitable organizations spend on poverty, we know very little about what can be done to prevent and alleviate this serious problem in the United States and beyond,” said H. Luke Shaefer, associate professor of social work and public policy at the University of Michigan.

Shaefer hopes to change that. He helped establish Poverty Solutions, a new university initiative that seeks to inform, identify and test innovative strategies to prevent and alleviate poverty.

Shaefer is well aware of the countless programs and initiatives launched with the intent to end poverty, but he contends the university’s approach is unique and can produce results.

“We are focused not just on understanding the causes and consequences of poverty—we are working in partnership with policymakers and communities to figure out which strategies actually work to combat poverty.”

“We are focused not just on understanding the causes and consequences of poverty—we are working in partnership with policymakers and communities to figure out which strategies actually work to combat poverty,” said Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions.

As part of Poverty Solutions, the university recently awarded $200,000 spread across nine projects led by U-M researchers that aim to tackle specific aspects of poverty—from developing new strategies to protect affordable housing in Detroit to discovering innovative ways to deliver health care services to those most in need.

“As a public university, our research should be focused on challenges and opportunities that benefit the public we serve,” said U-M President Mark S. Schlissel. “In terms of poverty, you could have lots of well-intentioned ideas, but until we can rigorously figure out what the best approaches are, we won’t be helping the most people.”

Michigan Research highlights two of the new poverty research projects below. Learn more about all of the research projects recently funded by Poverty Solutions.

Targeting Poverty in the Courts

Police cited a woman for not having car insurance.

The woman could not cover the associated fines, so her driver’s license was suspended.

Years later, police arrived at the woman’s house with an ultimatum—pay $1,500 in fines or serve 31 days in jail.

She could not cover the amount, so police took her to jail.

J.J. Prescott

J.J. Prescott is well aware of stories like this: a person is unable to pay the fine on a minor infraction, and so it escalates into a hefty charge or jail time.

A tool being developed by Prescott and his colleagues aims to fix this pervasive problem. Prescott, a U-M professor of law, is partnering with the 31st District Court in Hamtramck, Mich. and Court Innovations to implement a sophisticated online method of evaluating someone’s “ability to pay” fines and fees.

The web-based assessment tool used by courts will use skip patterns, big data, upload functionality and a rigorous understanding of indigency to help defendants provide a more complete and accurate picture of their financial stability to courts in a less intimidating, more complete and fair manner.

“If you’re unable to pay a fine and you’re confused about what to do, a very natural thing to do is just ignore it and hope it goes away,” he said. “But even minor legal issues get out of hand quickly. A $100 fine turns into $1,000 before you know it.”

Here’s how the tool will work:

  • A litigant will access his/her court and case (e.g., ticket or warrant) online; if he/she owes fines or fees, the court’s online portal will allow the litigant to claim inability to pay
  • To make this claim, litigants must answer questions, provide information and submit documentation online, using a computer or phone, day or night
  • The tool then combines this information with existing litigant data, analyzes and distills the result using cutting-edge understandings of poverty, and presents this analysis to the judge

In Michigan, judges determine a litigant’s ability to pay, but they rarely have a complete picture of someone’s socioeconomic status.

“As a class, judges aren’t poverty experts, and typically they aren’t well situated to learn what they need to know to accurately assess someone’s poverty status,” Prescott said. “Court staff don’t have an hour or two to do a workup on each person who claims they can’t pay; even if they did, in-person efforts are duplicative, frustrating and often inadequate. By contrast, our tool will empower judges, giving them what they need to know to make the right decision.”

Prescott expects to implement this tool in courts beyond southeast Michigan, with an ultimate goal of reducing incarceration and unnecessary misery, while keeping the court system operating efficiently and smoothly.

Poor, Invisible and Left Behind

More than 85 percent of persistently poor counties across the U.S. are rural.

And while poverty rates in America hover around 13 percent, households headed by women in rural communities experience the highest poverty rate of any group in the U.S. at 45 percent.

But when it comes to poverty, the conversation often focuses on urban areas.

Mathieu Despard                           Addie Weaver

A new project led by U-M researchers Mathieu Despard and Addie Weaver sheds light on rural poverty and aims to identify strategies and funding policies that could help promote economic mobility in rural America, while educating policymakers about the growing problem of rural poverty.

“There is a clear need to better understand the economic experiences of low-income rural residents,” said Despard, U-M assistant professor of social work.

The issue of rural poverty is especially timely because, over the last century, rural Americans have experienced a decline in life expectancy, along with increased rates of suicide, substance abuse and chronic illness. Material hardship has been linked to serious health concerns, so Despard and Weaver hope to learn more about rural poverty in an effort to help shape interventions and funding policies to address this serious problem.

“This research is important because factors that impact the financial wellbeing of low-income families living in rural America have been understudied and largely ignored,” said Weaver, U-M assistant professor of social work. “This has inhibited our ability to identify potential intervention targets and strategies to promote economic mobility specific to the rural population.”

As part of their project, Despard and Weaver will analyze four years worth of data from household surveys to better understand how the financial lives of rural households differ from their urban counterparts.

And when families struggle to meet basic needs like housing, food, clothing or health care, many turn to nonprofit organizations as a safety net. But data show rural communities and states have fewer charitable resources and receive less per capita in foundation funding than urban states, which weakens their safety net.

Despard and Weaver will analyze data on the financial capacity and growth of nonprofit organizations, such as food banks and domestic violence agencies, to compare the disparity in community resources among urban and rural areas.

“Rural communities hit hard by the Great Recession may have fewer resources because, there, households have less income to make charitable donations and residents ultimately leave for jobs in urban areas,” Weaver said. “So not only might material hardship look different among rural households—there may be fewer resources in rural communities to cope with hardship and achieve greater economic mobility.”


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