The Applied Wisdom of the Heartland

Joint efforts aim at alleviating poverty and fighting the opioid epidemic.

H. Luke Shaefer directs the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions—now partnering with Harvard to address economic mobility in Detroit.
Photograph courtesy of Poverty Solutions/University of Michigan

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In their very origins, public institutions like the University of Michigan (UM), and their land-grant cousins, are perhaps more inclined than a Harvard or Princeton to practical research and teaching, and to engagement with education and service in their home communities. Although UM has become one of the nation’s preeminent research institutions, it retains some of this flavor. Its president since 2014, Mark Schlissel, an M.D.-Ph.D. biomedical researcher, has doubled down with a series of Engaged Michigan initiatives: interdisciplinary approaches to challenges beginning in “communities in the state of Michigan” (and beyond)—tangible proof of the institution’s value to its constituents.

Given Detroit’s straits, even as it emerges from bankruptcy, and those of Pontiac and other cities in the state, one signature Engaged Michigan initiative is Poverty Solutions, organized in 2016 and charged with “finding new ways to prevent and alleviate poverty” locally, and in the nation and the world. Drawing on many of UM’s schools—ranging from business, law, and public policy to medicine and social work (a discipline not offered at Harvard)—that initiative is working on economic opportunity, educational disparities that undercut social mobility, and the health consequences of poverty. Another, Opioid Solutions—melding research, a center on injury prevention, and healthcare policy experts—serves as a central clearing house for UM’s work on what is now the nation’s deadliest drug epidemic.

Harvard’s Equality of Opportunity Project (EOP)—led by Ackman professor of public economics Raj Chetty with professor of economics Nathaniel Hendren and Brown’s John Friedman—will partner with Poverty Solutions. EOP has published acclaimed analyses of huge sets of demographic and income-tax data that reveal the economic, educational, and racial constraints on mobility in contemporary American society. The big-data tools employed in service of this high-level, but often basic, research will now be brought to bear on fine-grained, neighborhood-level analyses of children’s successes and failures within Detroit, to identify needed supports and better understand what interventions are productive. (See “Harvard in the Heartland” for a report on President Lawrence S. Bacow’s visit to Michigan and the context for the partnerships with UM.)

Separately, the two universities will sponsor two summits, one in each home state, on the opioid crisis. Harvard’s effort will be led by Mary Bassett, newly arrived as director of Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, based at the public-health school. She was formerly commissioner of New York City’s department of health and mental hygiene.

The partnerships tell something about the two universities’ modes of operation and social engagement, and about Harvard’s new president.

Poverty Solutions, explains its director, H. Luke Shaefer, associate professor of social work and public policy, explicitly focuses on applied scholarship: what the initiative describes as “action-based research partnerships with community stakeholders and policymakers” to determine what works in “confronting poverty.” As he explained in a conversation at UM’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, in Ann Arbor, the lens is interdisciplinary research that identifies and develops solutions to “the concrete challenges that face disadvantaged families”—from housing and the transportation barriers to holding a job, to the petty “fines and fees” that disqualify applicants during employment screenings, and so consign them to marginal jobs.

The initial steps have included about $800,000 in seed grants disbursed during the first few years, supporting dozens of research projects involving 14 of UM’s 19 schools; a small staff whose members focus on reaching out to engage community partners, disseminating data and research to communities and policymakers, and performing data analyses; and a few signature projects.

Among the latter is one resulting from an invitation by Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, who is working to extend the city’s downtown recovery to its troubled neighborhoods. That Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility (DPEM), created last January, comes with a four-year, UM commitment to invest up to $500,000 annually to support data analyses Duggan’s staff can use to make decisions, including technical analyses of programs and real-time evaluations of their efficacy. Poverty Solutions has embedded a UM staff member, Patrick Cooney, in the mayor’s office. Shaefer and Cooney, interviewed by phone, described some of the partnership’s work already under way:

  • Organizing resources so that tenants, rather than outside investors, can have a “right of first refusal” when houses foreclosed for tax purposes (one-quarterof Detroit’s houses have been foreclosed) come up for sale; DPEM is assessing the outcomes among a pilot cohort of such tenant buyers.
  • Identifying affordable, low-income housing units built with tax credits as they near the expiration of those credits, so that the city can bring resources to bear before they are converted to commercial, market-rate units.
  • Deploying a DPEM cohort of Detroit neighborhood opinion canvassers to do outreach, advising residents of the right they have to expunge minor offenses from their records, so they will then attend city fairs set up to effect the changes and improve employment prospects. In this case, the partnership is not only doing the canvassing, but also assessing whether such outreach affects behavior—and thus by extension might boost citizens’ use of other programs available to them (about which, in many cases, they are not well informed).

Doing this kind of work depends on gaining the confidence and cooperation of city officials and of the communities involved. Echoing Bacow’s comments on listening and learning, Cooney stresses the progress that has come, quickly, from “being responsive to city needs,” delivering “the research and data in real time that will inform their work to alleviate poverty and promote economic mobility”: analytical capabilities municipal staff members simply cannot access otherwise in the daily press of business.

Chetty’s group, which has been exploring how it might apply its analytic tools for action, has engaged in such work in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now, it will partner with Poverty Solutions’ DPEM team—a ready-made point of entry into a complex urban context with overwhelming needs. As it happens, David Williams, Equality of Opportunity Project’s policy director, who was brought in for precisely this sort of applied work, previously worked in Duggan’s office and so brings to the new Harvard-UM partnership his own contacts and knowledge of the terrain.

Shaefer knows how critical those relationships can be. His research evaluating Michigan’s promising “community ventures” employment program—a $5,000 incentive to employers for hiring structurally unemployed workers for full-time jobs with decent wages, coupled with $3,000 of “success counseling” support for each worker (to help navigate the transition to work, overcome transportation problems, and so on)—has been delayed by changes in state administration and difficulties in arranging for data to be shared.

Compared to many academic partnerships, where the researchers can be “a little selfish,” he said—looking for projects that fit their interests and lend themselves to the most rigorous scientific evaluation—Poverty Solutions works “almost as a first responder,” addressing priorities as they arise on the ground. In that context, he said, bringing the Chetty team’s “unique,” powerful analytical tools to bear on community problems within Detroit holds real promise for developing concrete, effective action plans. And, Shaefer said, “We’re excited” by Williams’s continuing engagement with the project. Chetty and the EOP team have equal reason to be excited about their partnership, given the access offered to problems they want to study, and the caliber of people already involved in articulating and addressing them.

On the opioid agenda, Harvard’s medical and public-health schools are pursuing lots of important research. At the latter, for example, Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management, has investigated doctors’ prescribing patterns and practices, and the resulting problems of opioid addiction. At the medical school, recent research has highlighted the absence of a clinical rationale for perhaps 30 percent of opioid prescriptions, and OpioidX, a free online course, aims at educating doctors and health professionals about the problems. The affiliated hospitals have extensive clinical engagements with the epidemic, and associated research.

But neither school, nor the University, has pulled those resources together in anything like the UM Opioid Solutions program. Putting Harvard’s side of the new partnership in the hands of Mary Bassett, a new member of the Longwood community—and one who comes with hands-on experience in municipal government—may encourage the University to move toward some more unified way of addressing the epidemic with all the resources and people at its disposal.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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