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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

The Will to Help

January 12, 2018

ANN ARBOR, MI – More than half a century ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, then in office barely six months, came to the University of Michigan to proclaim his vision for a “Great Society.”

The key to that, as he saw it, was a major “War on Poverty” that would dramatically improve the lives of America’s poor.

But the early excitement generated by the program soon waned, and enthusiasm and money available declined as the nation turned its energies – and its funding – to the war in Vietnam.

Four years later, Richard Nixon was elected president, dismantled the Office of Economic Opportunity, and otherwise weakened the remnants of the war on poverty.

Today, conventional wisdom says the “war” was a failure – though the numbers show a very different story.

What is clear, however, is that political will to help the poorest Americans pretty much ended with the 1960s.

Yet the poor are still very much with us. And a little more than a year ago, the U of M launched a new, much more modest attempt to find solutions to the problems of the poor in America.

H. Luke Shaefer, a 39-year-old associate professor of social work and public policy and the co-author of an acclaimed book on the plight of the poorest of the poor, was appointed to lead the effort.

They call it Poverty Solutions. “Our mission statement is to find new ways to prevent and alleviate poverty,” primarily in Michigan, but also in the nation and the world, Shaefer said.

LBJ got Congress to pour billions into his War on Poverty. So far the university has thrown in a few million dollars and made the resources of a vast array of its experts available.

They’ve tried to learn from “big government” mistakes in the past. “We think that has to be done working with policy makers and communities. We’re interested in anybody who wants to test innovative ways of doing things. Our primary focus is on economic mobility – and for now, that is focused on the city of Detroit.”

Shaefer got national attention a few years ago for a book he co-authored with Kathryn Edin: “$2.00 A Day—Living on Almost Nothing in America,” a book that focused on extremely poor people who were neither drug addicts nor criminals, but who had fallen through the cracks of the system and were just scraping by.

“When I talked to people for that book and asked them what they wanted was jobs,” not handouts, to help them reach their full potential, Shaefer said. Beyond any doubt, he added, the biggest cause of human misery is poverty, and the biggest cure for poverty is good-paying jobs, and giving people the potential to reach them.

Currently, the federal government defines poverty as an annual income of $24,600 or less for a family of four. It quickly became apparent that there could be no better laboratory for trying to fight it than the city of Detroit, where the poverty rate is, at about 40 percent, nearly three times the statewide and national average.

Child poverty in the city is even higher – 60 percent. What the city did have going for it was an energetic mayor – Mike Duggan – who was willing to try new things.

“We made the decision we are going to partner with the city of Detroit. We are going to try some things that won’t work; we’ll try some things that will work, and that will help build knowledge that will spread across the city and nation, frankly,” Shaefer said.

Right now, they have a variety of small neighborhood and city-wide projects going on, from opinion surveys to trying to employ community health workers in one blighted neighborhood on Detroit’s west side to a city-wide effort to reduce property taxes for the poorest residents to help them stay in their homes.

Poverty Solutions are also developing data to show the effects of a minimum wage increase on the poor and the economy. “My reading of the evidence is that if you raise the minimum wage to $10 or $11 it’s all good,” but beyond that the outcome is debatable, he said.

Beyond that, he and Poverty Solutions are looking for other targets of opportunity when it comes to limiting poverty.

In reality, despite the conventional wisdom, much of the old 1960s war on poverty was actually a success. Nationally, poverty fell from 17 percent to 11 percent from 1958 to 1973.

Some programs, like Operation Head Start, still exist. But others were poorly thought out or not adequately funded or expertly managed, and ended up withering away.

What’s needed, the Poverty Solutions team believes are new sustainable community approaches. One intriguing idea moving through the legislature: Permitting the creation of “dental therapists,” who are not fully-fledged dentists, but who could do simple fillings, say, for people who otherwise can’t afford to see a dentist at all.

“If we can shock downward intractable poverty,” it will have an effect that may last generations,” Shaefer said.

The University of Michigan’s war on poverty is still small and still too new to have many measurable results.

But if it succeeds in instilling the idea that fighting poverty is a community responsibility that needs a community approach, Poverty Solutions might eventually be exactly what the name implies.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

January 11, 2018 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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