Community is an intervention: NPC panel on recession and recovery emphasizes collaboration across sectors

December 4, 2012

On November 19 at the U-M Detroit Center, the National Poverty Center (NPC) in conjunction with the C.S. Mott Foundation, hosted the panel discussion, "Michigan's Recession and Recovery: Opportunities for the Research, Non-profit, and Civic Engagement Communities."

The event invited a spectrum of stakeholders to discuss "what we know, what we are doing, and what can be done" about the many hardships Michigan families continue to face.

Featured panelists included Sarah Burgard, associate professor of sociology, U-M; Harvey Hollins III, director, Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, state of Michigan; Bill O'Brien, director, Harriet Tubman Center, Detroit; Rochelle Riley, columnist, Detroit Free Press; and Kristin Seefeldt (MPP '96, PhD '10), assistant professor of Social Work, U-M.

When asked by moderator Sheldon Danziger, H.J. Meyer Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy, what can be done to help Michigan's still-struggling families, panelist Rochelle Riley responded, "Stop hating them," referring to the inclination among some to blame the poor for their problems.

The comment reverberated throughout the room and the set the tone for an enlightening discussion about which way toward recovery for southeast Michigan.

Officially over in 2009, the Great Recession left global economic devastation in its wake. Stock prices and housing values plummeted, while U.S. joblessness skyrocketed to more than 10 percent. Southeast Michigan was among the hardest hit regions in the country, with metropolitan Detroit registering nearly 17 percent unemployment in the summer of 2009.

Three years later, signs of progress are no longer the stuff of myth; the U.S. economy is slowly recovering. Southeast Michigan, however, continues to lumber to its feet, a fact documented by the NPC's Michigan Recession and Recovery Study (MRRS), an ongoing panel study begun in late 2009 with the goal of understanding the hardships faced by families and workers in the tri-county area of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb.

The study looks at a broad range of life domains, including jobs, income, assets, debt, physical and mental health, and use of public programs. Researchers found that in 2011—two years into the national recovery—Detroit-area workers, particularly African Americans, continued to face recession-related problems around housing, jobs, personal finances, food, and postponement of medical care.

Riley's comments quickly provided a recurring theme for the two-hour event. Noting that Detroit's woes pre-dated the recession, Harvey Hollins III suggested a collaborative initiative between the legislatures of core Michigan cities, with better resource allocation and a common agenda. "Detroit can no longer do this alone," Hollins remarked.

And in order for Michigan workers and families to find a path to recovery, the panel discussion concluded, institutions such as the NPC, the Mott Foundation, policymakers, community organizers, journalists, and others must realize that "community" is statewide.

For the poor, said panelist Bill O'Brien, "community is an intervention."