Fifty-four years ago, kids were bused from my suburban Detroit high school to Ann Arbor for a special event. The president was coming to the University of Michigan to give a historic commencement addresses. Lyndon Baines Johnson, in office exactly six months following the assassination of President Kennedy, announced his plans to build what he called the Great Society by launching a massive war on poverty.
When Democrats won massive majorities in both houses of Congress that fall, he was able to do just that. These days, popular legend sees the War on Poverty as a failure. In reality, statistics tell a different tale. Some of the programs were clearly poorly thought out, and funding for and interest in poverty waned as the Vietnam War heated up.
But poverty rates did fall. Yet the desperately poor are still with us, in our high-tech world half a century removed from our last major attempt to cure poverty.
Fifteen months ago, University of Michigan President Mark Schissel decided it was time for a new, more modest approach to seeing what could be done. He committed the U of M to a multi-dimensional effort called Poverty Solutions, and appointed Luke Shaefer, a young associate professor of social work and public policy, to lead the effort.
Last week, I went to see Shaefer for an update, and found that Poverty Solutions had managed to do more in a year than I imagined. While the program did run a successful youth employment program for kids in Washtenaw County, their primary focus has been on the best possible laboratory for studying poverty in the nation: Detroit, where 40 percent of all residents and 60 percent of all children are living below the official poverty line, defined as an income of $24,600 a year for a family of four.
Detroit also has an energetic mayor interested in trying new things.
“We made the decision that we would partner with Detroit, and our efforts would center on trying to increase economic mobility in the city," Shaefer said.
Shaefer first came to my attention a few years ago because of a dramatic book he co-authored, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing In America, which looked at severe poverty among people who weren’t drug addicts or criminals but who had fallen through the cracks.
Currently, Poverty Solutions has a number of small projects underway in Detroit. They are employing community health workers in one neighborhood; trying to help people become economically self-sufficient in another, and working citywide to help more disadvantaged people win property tax exemptions t0 allow them to keep their homes.
Poverty Solutions has also stimulated Shaefer to think of other potential initiatives. He’s keenly interested in a bill to legalize “dental therapists,” a new occupation that would train people who aren’t fully fledged dentists to do things like simple fillings and extractions.
There are plenty of people who haven’t seen a dentist in years or at all.
“We will try some things that won’t work, and some things that will work,” and hopefully learn a lot that can be applied elsewhere in the state and nation,” he told me.
They may not be tweeting their accomplishments, but of all the things going on in Detroit, Poverty Solutions might, in the long run, be among the most significant of all.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.