New U-M report lifts up Detroit residents’ priorities for economic mobility

Source: Poverty Solutions

Detroit skyline Credit: Benjamin Morse.

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The public is invited to learn more about Investing in Us and ask questions during a webinar Sept. 30 at 3 p.m. Register in advance for details on how to join the webinar.

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A new report from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions lifts up more than a decade’s worth of input from Detroit residents on how to increase economic mobility and decrease poverty in their city. 

The community-based research project, titled Investing in Us: Resident Priorities for Economic Mobility in Detroit, aims to provide policymakers, philanthropic organizations, nonprofits and other service providers with clear guidance on how Detroiters define economic well-being and what strategies they think will work best to increase economic mobility, which is the ability to improve one’s economic status. 

The report’s findings — like Detroiters’ differing views on the power of individuals to drive their own economic mobility or the role of police in improving public safety highlight the importance of nuance in building resident-driven approaches to poverty reduction in the city.

Afton Branche-Wilson, right, lead researcher for Investing In Us, speaks at a focus group workshop on Nov. 8, 2019, at the U-M Detroit Center. Credit: Lauren Slagter.

“The research world produces a lot of data, indicators, metrics, and maps to tell us how people are doing and how public policy might respond to the need. Often missing from this picture is the voices of residents themselves. Our goal with this project was to listen to residents, and make the voices of Detroiters our primary source of data,” said Afton Branche-Wilson, strategic projects manager at Poverty Solutions’ Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility and lead researcher for Investing In Us. 

While every Detroit neighborhood is unique, Investing in Us reveals many residents share a sense of the barriers and solutions to economic mobility. Residents want living-wage jobs, good schools, affordable housing, accessible health care, and other foundations of economic well-being. However, as much as residents spoke about economic stability, they also highlighted the need for a sense of power and agency in efforts to revitalize their communities and the desire for city leaders to value their neighborhoods.

These themes emerged from the research team’s in-depth review of about 400 sources of information reflecting Detroiters’ views on economic mobility from 2007 to 2019, including neighborhood-level plans and reports, citywide reports, news articles and videos quoting Detroiters, videos of public comment at city meetings, and academic journal articles quoting Detroiters. Certain neighborhoods and groups were not well represented in these sources, so the research team conducted 12 focus groups to gather input from underrepresented groups. 

“Inclusive conversations about economic mobility begin with a historical review of the engagement and advocacy efforts led by residents, community leaders, and local organizations. We can use what was already shared as a solid foundation to co-design solutions,” said Ashleigh Johnson, former community engagement coordinator for Poverty Solutions who helped lead this research. “Instead of providing feedback on a set agenda, Detroiters can use their power to define what economic well-being means to them, then determine how to achieve and measure success.”

Ten Detroit nonprofit organizations authored sections of Investing In Us to share their perspectives on topics like financial products, workforce development coaching, transportation, equity in early childhood education, disability advocacy, Native American values, community organizing, Detroit’s changing food systems, and immigrant inclusion. Data Driven Detroit also partnered on the project to create Report Detroit, an interactive map and searchable database of neighborhood-level and citywide plans and reports related to economic mobility in the city. 

“Detroit faces dire circumstances in terms of the wage gap, the wealth gap, race equity issues. This is a critical issue for American society, for our state, and for our region. … So what we need are new and creative solutions, and the Investing in Us blueprint for Detroit is the beginning of that process,” said Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, one of the nonprofits that contributed to the report. 

In the months ahead, the research team will continue to share findings from Investing in Us, which is supported by Ballmer Group, and produce a series of policy briefs to inspire action on select priorities highlighted in this report. Poverty Solutions and the Detroit Urban Research Center also will award a new round of community-academic grants in the coming weeks to support action-based research projects related to economic mobility in Detroit. 

Ballmer Group believes that Detroit’s rich network of community development corporations and other community-based organizations are the engines of neighborhood and citywide revitalization. We are thrilled that Poverty Solutions wrote Investing in Us from the vantage point of these organizations and the residents they represent, relying on the lessons they’ve collectively learned over the past decade about what it will take to promote economic mobility for Detroit residents,” said Kylee Mitchell Wells, executive director – Southeast Michigan at Ballmer Group.

Detroit residents gather at a community event. Credit: city of Detroit.

Key findings from Investing in Us include: 

  • Residents want initiatives to reduce high costs of living in the city — like water bills and auto insurance — and get their neighbors working, through expanded investments in job training, mass transit, and incentives for small businesses and corporations to hire locals. There is significant support among residents for green jobs, as they connect the need to address Detroit’s vast stores of vacant land with widespread unemployment.
  • Many Detroiters care deeply about economic opportunities for people returning from incarceration and support more interventions to reduce barriers in accessing housing and employment for this population.
  • Detroiters — both youth and adults — commented on the urgency of making sure everyone is prepared for life after high school and shared their experiences with inequalities in school funding and the high cost of college.
  • Detroiters reported feeling unsafe often — due to dangerous traffic, crime, and blight — and insisted on serious changes in community safety. Yet residents have mixed views on what investing in public safety looks like: some call for increased police presence in neighborhoods, while others want less policing and more investments in education, mental health services and employment. Detroiters have been outspoken on this issue for years, before calls to defund police departments gained national attention this summer.
  • Detroiters want economic agency and the power to shape their communities by growing food, starting businesses, and owning land, but they point out the need for more flexible regulations, technical assistance, and financial support to make these visions a reality in a city where the median household income is less than $32,000 a year.
  • Advocacy works. Residents have shared concerns about their neighborhoods for years, and in some cases, their efforts have paid off. Researchers noticed several instances where public agencies instituted policy changes or new programs in response to grassroots advocacy efforts. However, residents may not always be aware of these wins, which indicates the need for clearer communication from policymakers.
  • Residents point to overall neighborhood neglect and overexposure to specific health and safety threats like blight and poor quality food as evidence that their communities are not of value to decision makers. Residents call for collective action to clean polluted air, build green infrastructure, provide access to quality food, and invest in physical and mental health resources in all corners of the city.
  • Undeterred by feelings that their disinvested communities are excluded from Detroit’s comeback, many residents feel included within their communities and prize their relationships with each other. Detroit’s neighborhoods are rich in social capital in ways that provide economic benefits; residents collaborate and connect with each other to provide in-kind support, information, and even financial support. Decision makers should build on this strength and find ways to generate more social capital and diverse networks in the city. 
  • Information gaps sometimes prevent residents from learning about critical programs and services that could help with economic stability. To increase access to information, residents call for investments in online and in-person places to find credible information, such as community centers or mobile resource centers.
  • Several co-authors emphasized that authentic relationships and social connections are at the heart of successful programs to promote economic mobility. Coaching or mentoring models that pair residents with staff to co-design pathways to employment or stable housing capitalize on relationships and have proven impact.

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