Series: Admissions

Our Research Centers: Poverty Solutions

March 25, 2020 0:31:24
Kaltura Video

Poverty Solutions leverages the resources at the University of Michigan to make a major impact on the lives of millions of Americans. Join Associate Director Kristin Seefeldt and learn how students can get involved—ending with an interactive Q&A.


Hello. My name is Rebecca Cohen, and I'm the senior communications and outreach specialist at the Ford School. I'm also an alum and I'm so excited that you're considering joining the Ford School community. As we get started, please use the chat box to tell us where you're joining from and why you're interested in learning more about Poverty Solutions, or what aspect of social policy you are interested in. As you may have heard, we'll be hosting a virtual Spring Preview this year. And we're working hard to expand opportunities to engage with faculty, students and alumni.

Please check back to The Future40's web page often for updates and recordings of the webinars that we've already held. Today, we have a special panelist who will share information about Poverty Solutions U of M's campus-wide Interdisciplinary Research Center and how you can get involved as a student. We'll leave lots of time for questions. To ask the question, please use the Q and A box on the right-hand side of the screen. With that, I wanna introduce Kristin Seefeldt, Associate Faculty Director of Poverty Solutions. Kristin is also the associate professor of Social Work and associate professor of Public Policy. Kristin, why don't you start out by telling us a little bit about Poverty Solutions? 

Sure. Thanks, Rebecca, and thanks everyone for joining. I'm really pleased that folks are interested in learning more about Poverty Solutions. And before we start, I'll also say that I too am an alum of the Ford School, got my MPP from Ford, before it was Ford. And my PhD is also from the Ford School. So I just can't get enough of it.

So, just to give a little bit of a background about Poverty Solutions, Poverty Solutions, I think of it as sort of the latest iteration in a very long tradition of U of M and the Policy School, in particular, doing research and other work related to issues affecting families with low income in the US. We've had poverty centers at the U of M for more than 25 years. Poverty Solutions is a presidential initiative, meaning that we are one of several campus-wide collaboratives that are charged with doing research that is focused on real world issues and certainly, issues around poverty in the US fall into that sphere. So our research center is a little bit different, I'd say, than a lot of research centers on campus, and maybe others that you might be familiar with. We do research that's really action-based. And we really try to engage communities broadly defined in meaningful ways. And those communities could be non-profits, they could be the policy-making community, they could be families and individuals themselves in certain neighborhoods. And we really also wanna do research that, not only informs policy, but we're really doing work to help shape development of actual policies. And I'll talk a little bit more about that in a moment.

So we're a small but ever-growing a number of folks. Some of us are here on campus in Ann Arbor. We have a small group of staff who are based in Detroit, and then we have another person who kind of splits their time between, or even divides up her time, between Detroit, Lansing, which is the state capital in Michigan, and in Ann Arbor. We involve faculty from all across campus, and not just the Ann Arbor campus. You may know or you'll learn as you consider Michigan, there are two other campuses in the U of M system. One at Dearborn, and one at Flint. And we have faculty colleagues at both of those campuses who are quite involved in a lot of our efforts.

So we support a lot of research conducted by faculty on the three campuses. We also do have some research projects of our own. And some of those are I think are more traditional research projects in that we support a survey called the Detroit Metropolitan Area Community Study, where we do periodic surveys of a random sample of Detroit and Detroit area residents about issues that are affecting them right now. So we're getting ready to go out in the field to do a survey related to how people are experiencing COVID pandemic.

We also do some projects that I think are a little bit outside the box of the typical research center. I don't know how this is gonna work this year, but we have for the past three summers, supported a summer youth employment program for young people who live in Washtenaw County, which is the county that Ann Arbor is located in, and we bring youth to work jobs on campus, anywhere from jobs with faculty, with staff, some folks work with the grounds crews, some work in the hospital, and we also run an enrichment program for youth. And so that's one of our more active community-involved efforts.

And then we also provide a lot of technical assistance to the City of Detroit to various departments within the city. We do a lot of analysis or work with folks to enhance their own capability to do data analysis, we help to shape policy. And that's been, I think, really important in the last year or so. We also are involved primarily with the efforts that our director, Luke Shaefer, is leading in doing a lot of work very closely with the State of Michigan. So, Luke is... Some of his time is served on loan to the State of Michigan, where he's advising the Department of Human Services, and he has been really busy the last couple of weeks and the last week in particular, really working hard to make sure that in our state, people who are experiencing poverty, people who have lost jobs, other folks who are experiencing economic instability will have some supports in place. So he's worked hard to help bolster our unemployment insurance system, ease some of the work requirements that are in a lot of our public assistance programs and the like. And while we wish that there wasn't a need, such a pressing need to do that, it's been I think, really a very good thing that we've been able to have some real impact in that area.

So I'll just kind of end by saying a little bit about student involvement, which is probably something that many of you are interested in. And we involve students in numerous ways. So one of the easiest ways to get involved is to sign up for a one-credit course that we offer each fall. This course is offered to anyone on campus, undergrad through grad. And what it entails is attending a series of speakers who come to campus typically on Fridays, but these are folks who are doing cutting-edge work within the area of solutions and policy approaches and on-the-ground work to help deal with the causes and consequences of poverty. And there's a little bit of writing involved, but it's a one-credit course and it gives a great exposure, I think, to a lot of the issues that we deal with.

But then, we also hire a lot of research assistants. I think right now, we have maybe around 50 research assistants who are actively involved with Poverty Solutions, and those are research assistants who could be undergrads, master students, doctoral students, they come from around campus. But because we are physically located in the Ford School, up on the fifth floor, we tend to actually hire a lot of Ford School students, and I anticipate we will do so again in the fall, to kinda take an inventory of projects and their needs every semester. And that is certainly for folks who are really interested in being involved in a more hands-on way, depending on what the projects are, and they change all the time. But we generally do a big hiring at the beginning of the fall semester and again, at the beginning of the winter semester. But as needs arise, we all are constantly bringing people on board. So when you decide to arrive... When you arrive on campus, because of course, you're gonna wanna come to Michigan, you should connect with myself or someone else in the Poverty Solutions team and let us know that you're interested in that, so I'll stop with that.

Thanks, Kristin. Yeah, for those of you who are on, please let us know in the chat box where you're logging in from. And also, what aspect of social policy you're most interested in. We have folks from around the country interested in gender, race, and wealth inequality, education, housing, community development, juvenile justice, youth opportunity, a great list of topic areas that I know Kristin, Poverty Solutions, touches on. One thing that you mentioned, that I know that so much of Poverty Solutions work is timely and relevant to whatever is going on right now, can you comment a little bit on the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has on low-income families in the US? 

Yeah, yeah.

And you kind of spoke to this a little bit, but dive in a little bit more about what you and other Poverty Solutions faculty and staff are doing to mitigate those impacts.

Sure. I think when we think about the US, we know that income inequality in this country is a very large issue, and unfortunately, without some pretty robust policy responses, the pandemic could have the effect of increasing inequality in this country. We also know that not just for folks who have very low incomes, but even higher up into the income distribution, there's a lot of people who really are living from paycheck to paycheck, who don't have savings that they can dip into when they might get laid off and lose a job. So programs like unemployment insurance, which has been expanded within the State of Michigan, but now I think with the Stimulus Bill, we'll see some changes there are really, really important. But even things like going to the grocery store, we've heard lots of stories and I'm sure that some of you... I certainly have myself have experience going to a store, needing something and it's not there. And for many of us, we can just hop back in our cars and go and find that in other store. Folks who may have limited transportation, that's not really an option. So even meeting basic needs can be really hard.

So in addition to some of the policy work that Luke has been doing around unemployment insurance expansion, around making it a little easier to access some of our other safety net programs, I think later today, we'll be putting out a resource guide that a couple of our staff worked really hard and really fast on developing. So this is a research guide that's really intended for the broader community in Michigan and it helps point people toward various programs, towards different agencies. It's really designed to put in one place, easy-to-access, one-stop shop for different services that you might want to access during this time.

That's a great example. Thanks, Kristin. We have a couple of new questions. And for those of you who have questions for Kristin, please enter them into the Q and A box on the right-hand side of your screen. So first question, does the center have international projects or are they typically only US-based? 

It's a great question. Our mission, in our mission, we are charged with focusing on issues of poverty that affect the globe, as well. To date, we haven't really... The folks who are within Poverty Solutions haven't really dealt with any projects that are global in focus. I think we've just had a lot of work both in the state and nationally as well, so some of the work we do is focused nationally. We have supported projects though that have a global focus. So we are, through monetary support, through grants to other faculty are supporting research that they do in other parts of the globe.

Great. We have a question about research position. How easy is it to get an RA position if we seek one out? And is it possible to get one in the first semester, and when and how should we start applying for these? 

One thing that I'll do after we end our webinar is I'll alert Trevor Bechtel, who is our student engagement coordinator that we have students who are interested in RA positions. I would say if you want to, in August, send in your resumes to the Poverty Solutions email address, which is on our website. We take them, we develop a database of who's applied, what their skills are and we really... Really the match is about to, what sort of skills people have, and what the project need is at the time. So in my experience, and I've been with the team for less than a year, we do tend to do a lot of hiring. So I don't wanna say it's easy, but I think for folks who are really interested, if you don't get hired right away, we will keep your name in the database and as things come up, reach out.

Yeah. So it's certainly worthwhile to reach out early. And it sounds like there might be some opportunities and there are so many student opportunities through Poverty Solutions to get involved. Another specific question about the Detroit Partnership for Economic Mobility, is there an opportunity for students to get involved in that? 

Some of our research assistants do work with the set of staff who are part of that project. So, just to give a little bit more background on that project, we have three staff who are based in Detroit that are part of the partnership. Two of them do a lot of work with the communities, so they've got some research assistants that work with them. And then we are also supporting a set of fellows, and these are... There's something that you'll learn about in any policy school, called the Presidential Management Fellows Program, and this is a program for students who after they graduate from their masters, go work in federal agencies for a couple of years. So we've replicated that with the city, and so we have about four or five now, I can't quite... I think we have five now, fellows who work in city agencies. They typically don't draw on research assistant support, but sometimes they do. I should say too, some of our projects... We do, being that if you work on it, you might go to Detroit to do some of your work. Some of our projects, the students mostly work remotely, and perform data analysis from home on your own laptop. So it really just varies and it's really project-specific.

Okay, great, thanks. Keep those questions coming. Kristin, is a wealth of information about Poverty Solutions. You can enter those in the Q and A box on the right hand side of your screen.

Kristin, you mentioned the interaction with policy makers and different community stakeholders, doing community development, can you talk a little bit and give some examples about some of those community stakeholders who are involved in those efforts and examples of how students are involved directly in those activities? 

Sure. I think one of the most exciting early wins, if you can use that phrase, that we had was around auto insurance in this state. So historically, Michigan has had one of the highest rates of car insurance in this country, and by high rates, I mean it costs... Compared to a lot of other states on average, it costs a lot more to insure your car here. And that is particularly true if you live in the City of Detroit. And that's been a real issue. And along with one of our staff, who has now left to go do policy development up in Lansing, did some analysis on the ways in which their auto insurance is unaffordable in this state and students were involved in doing that data analysis with Josh, our staff person. And he testified in front of the State, he's testified in front of Congress and starting in July, there are some new... There's a new law and new rules and regulations going in place around how much insurance companies can actually charge for car insurance. And we're really hopeful that this could have some impact for all of us actually, but in particular for folks who have limited incomes, for whom this was a really disproportionate burden.

Great, thank you so much. You also mentioned that the Poverty Solutions is a cross-campus initiative. And so I imagine it's pretty interdisciplinary. Can you talk a little bit about the different units that are involved and how that all comes together under Poverty Solutions? Some of those, an example of those projects.

So we are currently supporting faculty on their projects from a wide variety of schools and we have a number of projects that work with faculty, part of the School of Public Health, several that are focused on dealing with the aftermath of the Flint water crisis. I'm sure many of you have heard how, when Flint, a number of years ago, switched over its water systems it led to lead being injected, massively injected into the water system there. So we support a lot of work there, both School of Public Health, and also some folks at U of M Flint who are doing work in that area. We're supporting some faculty in the School of Environment and Sustainability. One faculty member, Tony Reames, does a lot of work around the just transition, that is as we move away from using fossil fuels into more sustainable forms of energy, there's a concern that folks who live in communities with lower incomes are gonna get left behind. And so he's doing a lot of work in that area and also doing work around helping folks make sure that they keep the heat on, and so he's done a lot work with the utility companies as well.

We also... We're in the middle of some work where we're gonna fund some doctoral students for their dissertation work, and we've gotten some proposals and even from places like the School of Engineering, which you might not consider sort of a usual suspect in this area, but some really interesting innovations that I'm not even gonna attempt to try to explain, but doing some systems work to help streamline processes, in some of the systems that folks might be involved in.

Yeah, that's definitely a strength here at the university, is being around other very smart people from other units across campus. It's very inspiring. We have another question. I think people who wanna know about how Poverty Solutions, either formally or informally works with elected officials, or other folks from agencies on passing and implementing proposals. And question is, this direct lobbying, or more of informal advocacy, how does that work? 

So I would say the words that I used to describe it is really sort of technical assistance and I'm not sure if that's the right term, but I think it works. So we have a person who, she's a fantastic data analyst and we kind of loan out part of her time to Lansing and in particular the Department of Human Services, so she not only is helping with their capacity to analyze all of the various program data that they have, but also helping to look to see what do these trends suggest? And then working with either herself directly or in conjunction with other staff, with Luke Shaefer, to be involved in actual policy discussions at the agency level to like, What does this mean? So there are lots of issues in this state around take-up of public programs that is, we don't necessarily see... We see folks who look like they're eligible not using programs. And why is that? And what might be some of the policy responses to that? And then with our fellows program and our work in the City of Detroit too. We think of it as streamlining the relationship between the university and the city, and using a lot of the expertise that we have here on campus to help with decision-making that takes place at various agency levels in Detroit.

But I also really wanna stress too that is a two-way street as well. It's not just about us as the university coming in and saying, "Oh we have all of the answers," because we don't. And communities themselves are the ones who really have the expertise. So part of what we try to do is a lot of really engaged listening and listening to community concerns to then have that influence the work that we're doing. So I do, I would be remiss as this is like just a brain trust. We take the community partnership aspect very seriously and all of our research assistants are required to go to a training on effective engagement with communities.

I think that is a really key point Kristin. And that it's not just grass-tops, communities have a lot of knowledge themselves. And we have another question about community engagement with Poverty Solutions, and what kinds of community organizations do you engage with and at what frequency? So maybe just talk a little bit more about that and I just wanna mention to Kristin, it seems like your microphone just might be a little bit loose. We got what you were saying, but just.


There you go. Perfect.

Okay. Thanks. Again it sort of depends on the project. One project I'll highlight in Park, this is what I'm working on and so I know it a little bit better. The City of Detroit, residents in the City of Detroit, have sort of been studied to death. And the one thing we absolutely don't want to do is just go in and launch yet another study that's asking the same questions, that have been asked over and over again.

So we have been working with a variety of community organizations ranging from neighborhood block associations. Even within a neighborhood there might be different block clubs. All the way to several of the larger non-profits in the city, kinda work with them to gather information about, what is it that residents of Detroit want in terms of the future of the city. I think some really legitimate concerns that Detroit's so-called come back, is a comeback for certain segments of the population and not for everybody. And for certain neighborhoods, particularly those around the downtown, midtown area and not those neighborhoods that are farther out within the city limits. So we work with them to get their input, get their reports, get their perspectives. We're close to finishing a report that synthesizes all of that, and we're working collaboratively with these organizations and then some of these are block group clubs, some of them are non-profits. To write this report that will hopefully, then serve as sort of a blueprint for getting residents' input into the directions that the city should take around issues of economic development and land use development and the like.

Wonderful, that's great to hear. Kristin in our last minute or so, would love if you could make a pitch for students who are thinking about attending the Ford School. From your perspective, why is this an exciting place to be right now? 

So I love the Ford School so much that I can never leave it is what I always say. One thing about the University of Michigan and the Ford School in particular, is, again, it's not just about coming to the Ford School, the wonderful special place it is. It's about coming to a university that has so many resources and it's so easy to access different departments around the university and have that add to the fantastic education that you'll receive in the Ford School. And it's not just the research centers that are here within the Ford School too. There's initiatives going on all across the university. So for me, it is a top-notch school in a world class university, that makes this such a great combination.

Thank you so much, Kristin, and I wanna thank all of you who participated in the webinar today. I noticed several of you are interested in tax policy and education policy, we have new exciting webinars this week, tomorrow is the Center on Finance, Law and Policy, with Dean Barr and on Friday we have a webinar with the Youth Policy Lab and the Education Policy Initiative. So please check Back To The Future40's webpage and RSVP for those. And don't forget about April 3rd as well. We hope to see you in Ann Arbor in the fall. Go Blue.