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Kristin S. Seefeldt Headshot
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Sheldon Danziger Headshot

How to Fight Poverty in Detroit

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Many journalists, artists and academics have put Detroit in the spotlight in recent years through depictions of abandoned homes and other landmarks like the old Packard Plant and Michigan Central Station. Unfortunately, the 700,000 residents of Detroit, especially the poor, remain in the shadows. In fact, the poor throughout the country are being ignored by both political parties. As memories of the Great Recession of 2007-09 fade for many American and their elected officials, little attention is focused on how to help the low income families being left behind as the economy slowly recovers. For a city like Detroit, with high levels of concentrated poverty, even when the national economy is booming, such negligence threatens the next generation.

We have been studying how the economic crisis and slow recovery have affected residents in Southeast Michigan and poor families in Detroit in particular. The recession hurt individuals across the socio-economic spectrum. We find that most (80 percent) have experienced some economic or related challenge, including job loss, wage reductions, loss of housing, not having enough food to eat and forgoing needed medical care because of its cost. The level of problems experienced by African Americans and those without a college degree is staggering. More than half of African Americans in our representative sample of Southeastern Michigan counties have experienced "food insecurity;" that is, they worry about running out of food or have changed their diets and eating habits for financial reasons. About half of those without a bachelor's degree reported some financial problem (such as being behind on utility payments or having credit cards cancelled by the issuer), compared to about a quarter of college graduates.

One of us (Seefeldt) has been interviewing low-income women, most of whom live in Detroit, since 2006. Their lives were financially precarious before the recession and became more so in its wake. Contrary to popular conceptions, most of these poor women are workers, not welfare recipients. But with the unemployment rate high, they're having a harder time finding jobs. Again, contrary to popular belief, getting benefits from government programs is often a challenge. While some eventually received unemployment compensation or other benefits, it often took months of waiting, sometimes because employers disputed their claims. Many women have had to make ends meet with no regular source of income (except food stamps). As a result, many have taken on debt to cover expenses.

What needs to be done? It is clear to us is that proposals like those in Representative Ryan's budget blueprint -- which would slash spending on food stamps, school lunches and other programs that help low-income individuals -- will do much more harm than good. Food stamps have been shown to reduce food insecurity. To make significant cuts would pull some of the last strings of the safety net out from under individuals who are already having difficulty making ends meet.

Cities like Detroit, as well as disadvantaged neighborhoods in many cities, need greater public investments: in education, jobs and infrastructure. Poor children and young adults won't have an equal opportunity to succeed if their public schools don't teach them the skills they need for 21st century jobs. And employers are not locating new factories and offices in areas where the labor force is not well educated. Detroit's public schools, like those in most urban centers, are in a state of crisis. There is no magic bullet to solve these problems, but more effort needs to be made to find solutions, such as the comprehensive policies of the Harlem Children's Zone.

Many adults also need additional education and skills to get jobs that support their families and provide opportunities for advancement. While the auto industry has rebounded since it was rescued (by the Administrations of both Bush and Obama), the jobs in the new factories -- as well as those in other growing sectors -- require advanced skills that many workers lack. Many adults, including former factory workers, have enrolled in community colleges to obtain these skills. Calls to cut financial aid for lower-income students, like those made in Representative Ryan's proposed budget, will limit Detroiters' chances to move up the pay scale and/or lead them to take on unaffordable student loans.

For some adults, additional training is not feasible, so while the economy recovers, subsidized employment programs could provide them with the opportunity to earn a paycheck and maintain ties to the labor market. The 2009 stimulus bill provided funds that allowed state governments to offer private and nonprofit employers subsidies to hire low-income workers. Unfortunately, Congress let this program expire, even though the unemployment rate for less-educated workers remains quite high.

We can ignore Detroit's abandoned buildings, but we can't ignore our disadvantaged fellow citizens. Fighting poverty in Detroit and across the country requires not just protecting existing programs that work, but also doing more to promote opportunities for the children and adults whose voices are not heard on the convention floors.

Kristin S. Seefeldt is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan. Sarah Burgard is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Epidemiology and Research Associate Professor at the Population Research Center at the University of Michigan. Sheldon Danziger is Henry J. Meyer Distinguished University Professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and the Director of the National Poverty, both at the University of Michigan. For more about their work, please visit the home page of the Michigan Recession and Recovery Study, conducted through the National Poverty Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.